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Effect of an invasive grass on ambient rates of decomposition and microbial community structure: a search for causality

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In situ decomposition of above and belowground plant biomass of the native grass species Andropogon glomeratus (Walt.) B.S.P. and exotic Imperata cylindrica (L.) Beauv. (cogongrass) was investigated using litter bags over the course of a 12 month period. The above and belowground biomass of the invasive I. cylindrica always decomposed faster than that of the native A. glomeratus. Also, belowground biomass of both species decomposed at a consistently faster rate when placed within an invaded area consisting of a monotypic stand of I. cylindrica as opposed to within a native plant assemblage. However, there was no similar such trend observed in the aboveground plant material. The microbial communities associated with the invaded sites often differed from those found in the native vegetation and provide a possible causal mechanism by which to explain the observed differences in decomposition rates. The microbial communities differed not only compositionally, as indicated by ordination analyses, but also functionally with respect to enzymatic activity essential to the decomposition process. This study supports the growing consensus that invasive plant species alter normal ecological processes and highlights a possible mechanism (alteration of microbial assemblages) by which I. cylindrica may alter an ecosystem process (decomposition).

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We appreciate being granted access to the Nature Conservancy’s Deaton Reserve where the field component of this work took place and to Becky Stowe who provided assistance in accessing the site. Lucas Majure provided assistance in the field and Rachel White aided in litter bag construction. This research was supported in part by grants from the United States Geological Survey Biological Resources Discipline (#04HQAG0135) and the United States Department of Agriculture (2006-03613 and 2008-35320-18679) to GNE.

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Correspondence to D. Christopher Holly.

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Holly, D.C., Ervin, G.N., Jackson, C.R. et al. Effect of an invasive grass on ambient rates of decomposition and microbial community structure: a search for causality. Biol Invasions 11, 1855–1868 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10530-008-9364-5

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  • Decomposition alteration
  • DGGE
  • Ecosystem modification
  • Invasive plant species
  • Microbial community analyses
  • Microbial ecology
  • T-RFLP