Plant species natural abundances are determined by their growth and modification of soil resources in monoculture

  • Sophie S. ParkerEmail author
  • W. Stanley Harpole
  • Eric W. Seabloom
Regular Article



The abundance of a plant species in a diverse community may depend on two aspects of a plant’s resource niche: its ability to garner limiting resources for its own growth, and its ability to reduce resources available for other species. Given that these two aspects of niche can be quantified in monoculture, we tested whether plant growth or plant modification of soil resources in monoculture relate to plant abundance in naturally-assembled California grassland communities.


We grew 18 native and exotic grassland plant species in replicated monocultures, measured plant biomass and soil resources in these monocultures, and then assessed how well the measured variables for each species in monoculture correlated with natural abundances of the species across the local landscape.


Both aboveground and belowground plant biomass in monoculture were positively correlated with species abundances in naturally-assembled communities; aboveground monoculture biomass alone accounted for 63% of the natural variability in species abundances, whereas shallow and subsurface root biomass accounted for 28 and 38%, respectively. Nitrogen concentrations in shallow monoculture soils were also positively correlated with a species’ natural abundance in the field, accounting for 43% of the natural variability in species abundances.


Our results suggest that the performance of species when grown alone—e.g., biomass production and impacts on soil resources—can inform their performance in diverse communities and across heterogeneous landscapes.


Plant species abundance Ecosystem modification Exotic Invasive Non-native Resource competition Grassland Plant-soil interactions 







dissolved inorganic nitrogen


dissolved organic carbon


dissolved organic nitrogen


multivariate analysis of variance







We wish to thank A. Borcher, G. Creager, J. Quinn, E. Stephens, and T. Yoshida for assistance in collecting and assembling the data used in this manuscript, and O.J. Reichman, J. Schimel, and D. Tilman for excellent collaboration throughout the project. We also thank J. Randall for comments that improved the manuscript. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (DEB 9806377, DEB 0235624, EF 0525666), Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a Center funded by NSF (DEB-0072909), the University of California Santa Barbara, and Sedgwick Reserve. The completion of writing was funded by The Nature Conservancy.

Author contribution

SSP, WSH, and EWS conceived the study idea, developed the methodology, and conducted the fieldwork. SSP conducted the lab analyses. SSP, WSH, and EWS performed statistical analyses and wrote the manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Bertness MD (1984) Habitat and community modification by an introduced herbivorous snail. Ecology 65:370–381CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bever JD, Westover KM, Antonovics J (1997) Incorporating the soil community into plant population dynamics: the utility of the feedback approach. J Ecol 85:561–573CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Borer ET, Hosseini PR, Seabloom EW, Dobson AP (2007) Pathogen-induced reversal of native dominance in a grassland community. Proc Natl Acad Sci 104:5473–5478PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Borer ET, Seabloom EW, Gruner DS, Harpole WS, Hillebrand H, Lind EM, Adler PB, Alberti J, Anderson TM, Bakker JD, Biederman L, Blumenthal D, Brown CS, Brudvig LA, Buckley YM, Cadotte M, Chu C, Cleland EE, Crawley MJ, Daleo P, Damschen EI, Davies KF, DeCrappeo NM, du G, Firn J, Hautier Y, Heckman RW, Hector A, HilleRisLambers J, Iribarne O, Klein JA, Knops JMH, la Pierre KJ, Leakey ADB, Li W, MacDougall AS, McCulley RL, Melbourne BA, Mitchell CE, Moore JL, Mortensen B, O'Halloran LR, Orrock JL, Pascual J, Prober SM, Pyke DA, Risch AC, Schuetz M, Smith MD, Stevens CJ, Sullivan LL, Williams RJ, Wragg PD, Wright JP, Yang LH (2014) Herbivores and nutrients control grassland plant diversity via light limitation. Nature 508:517–520PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Borman MM, Johnson DE, Krueger WC (1992) Soil moisture extraction by vegetation in a Mediterranean/maritime climatic region. Agron J 84:897–904CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brandt AJ, Seabloom EW, Hosseini PR (2009) Phylogeny and provenance affect plant–soil feedbacks in invaded California grasslands. Ecology 90:1063–1072PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Callaway RM, Thelen GC, Rodriguez A, Holben WE (2004) Soil biota and exotic plant invasion. Nature 427:731–733PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Carboni M, Münkemüller T, Lavergne S, Choler P, Borgy B, Violle C, Essl F, Roquet C, Munoz F, DivGrass Consortium, Thuiller W (2016) What it takes to invade grassland ecosystems: traits, introduction history and filtering processes. Ecol Lett 19:219–229PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Carleton AM, Carpenter DA, Weser PJ (1990) Mechanisms of interannual variability of the Southwest United States summer rainfall maximum. J Clim 3:999–1015CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Chase J, Leibold M (2003) Ecological niches: linking classical and contemporary approaches. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Clark A, Lehman C, Tilman D (2018) Identifying mechanisms that structure ecological communities by snapping model parameters to empirically-observed tradeoffs. Ecol Lett 21:494–505CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cox RD, Allen EB (2008) Stability of exotic annual grasses following restoration efforts in southern California coastal sage scrub. J Appl Ecol 45:495–504CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Doyle A, Weintraub MN, Schimel J (2004) Persulfate digestion and simultaneous colorimetric analysis of carbon and nitrogen in soil extracts. Soil Sci Soc Am J 68:669–676CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dybzinski R, Tilman D (2007) Resource use patterns predict long-term outcomes of plant competition for nutrients and light. Am Nat 170:305–318PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dyer AR, Rice KJ (1999) Effects of competition on resource availability and growth of a California bunchgrass. Ecology 80:2697–2710CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Everard K, Seabloom EW, Harpole WS, de Mazancourt C (2010) Plant water use affects competition for nitrogen: why drought favors invasive species in California. Am Nat 175:85–97PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Ewel JJ, Celis G, Schreeg L (2015) Steeply increasing growth differential between mixture and monocultures of tropical trees. Biotropica 47:162–171CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fernandez-Going BM, Anacker BL, Harrison SP (2012) Temporal variability in California grasslands: soil type and species functional traits mediate response to precipitation. Ecology 93:2104–2114PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fierer N, Schimel JP, Holden PA (2003) Variations in microbial community composition through two soil depth profiles. Soil Biol Biochem 35:167–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Foster B, Gross K (1998) Species richness in a successional grassland: effects of nitrogen enrichment and plant litter. Ecology 79:2593–2602CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gallardo B, Clavero M, Sánchez MI, Vilà M (2016) Global ecological impacts of invasive species in aquatic ecosystems. Glob Chang Biol 22:151–163PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gallien L, Thornhill AH, Zurell D, Miller JT, Richardson DM (2019) Global predictors of alien plant establishment success: combining niche and trait proxies. Proc R Soc B 286:20182477PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Germain RM, Jones NT, Grainger TN (2019) Cryptic dispersal networks shape biodiversity in an invaded landscape. Ecology:e02738.
  24. Gessler PE, Chadwick OA, Chamran F, Althouse L, Holmes K (2000) Modeling soil-landscape and ecosystem properties using terrain attributes. Soil Sci Soc Am J 64:2046–2056CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Goldberg DE (1990) Components of resource competition in plant communities. In: Grace J, Tilman D (eds) Perspectives on plant competition. Academic Press, San Diego, pp 357–364Google Scholar
  26. Gornish ES, Eastburn DJ, Oneto S, Roche LM (2018) Livestock grazing and topographic site effects on grassland plant communities after long-term grazing cessation. Rangel J 40:577–582CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Grace JB, Anderson TM, Seabloom EW, Borer ET, Adler PB, Harpole WS, Hautier Y, Hillebrand H, Lind EM, Pärtel M, Bakker JD, Buckley YM, Crawley MJ, Damschen EI, Davies KF, Fay PA, Firn J, Gruner DS, Hector A, Knops JMH, MacDougall AS, Melbourne BA, Morgan JW, Orrock JL, Prober SM, Smith MD (2016) Integrative modelling reveals mechanisms linking productivity and plant species richness. Nature 529:390–393PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Grime JP (1977) Evidence for the existence of three primary strategies in plants and its relevance to ecological theory. Am Nat 111:1169–1194CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Grime JP (1979) Plant strategies and vegetation processes. Wiley, ChichesterGoogle Scholar
  30. Groves RH, Austin MP, Kaye PE (2003) Competition between Australian native and introduced grasses along a nutrient gradient. Austral Ecol 28:491–498CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hamilton JG, Holzapfel C, Mahall BE (1999) Coexistence and interference between a native perennial grass and non-native annual grasses in California. Oecologia 121:518–526PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Harpole WS (2005) Limiting resources and patterns of species abundance and diversity. Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota, Saint PaulGoogle Scholar
  33. Harpole WS, Tilman D (2006) Non-neutral patterns of species abundance in grassland communities. Ecol Lett 9:15–23Google Scholar
  34. Harpole WS, Tilman D (2007) Grassland species loss resulting from reduced niche dimension. Nature 446:791–793PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Harpole WS, Goldstein L, Aicher R (2007) Resource limitation. In: Stromberg MR, Corbin JD, D’Antonio CM (eds) California grasslands: ecology and management. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp 119–127Google Scholar
  36. Harpole WS, Sullivan LL, Lind EM, Firn J, Adler PB, Borer ET, Chase J, Fay PA, Hautier Y, Hillebrand H, MacDougall AS, Seabloom EW, Williams R, Bakker JD, Cadotte MW, Chaneton EJ, Chu C, Cleland EE, D’Antonio C, Davies KF, Gruner DS, Hagenah N, Kirkman K, Knops JMH, la Pierre KJ, McCulley RL, Moore JL, Morgan JW, Prober SM, Risch AC, Schuetz M, Stevens CJ, Wragg PD (2016) Addition of multiple limiting resources reduces grassland diversity. Nature 537:93–96PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hautier Y, Niklaus P, Hector A (2009) Competition for light causes plant biodiversity loss after eutrophication. Science 324:636–638PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hawkes CV, Belnap J, D'Antonio C, Firestone MK (2006) Arbuscular mycorrhizal assemblages in native plant roots change in the presence of invasive exotic grasses. Plant Soil 281:369–380CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Heady HF (1977) Valley grassland. In: Barbour MG, Major J (eds) Terrestrial vegetation of California. Wiley, New York, pp 491–514Google Scholar
  40. Hille Ris Lambers JW, Harpole WS, Tilman D et al (2004) Species and mechanisms contributing to the positive diversity-productivity relationship. Ecol Lett 7:661–668CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Hoekstra NJ, Suter M, Finn JA, Husse S, Lüscher A (2015) Do belowground vertical niche differences between deep- and shallow-rooted species enhance resource uptake and drought resistance in grassland mixtures? Plant Soil 394:21–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Holmes TH, Rice KJ (1996) Patterns of growth and soil-water utilization in some exotic annuals and native perennial bunchgrasses of California. Ann Bot 78:233–243CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Husse S, Huguenin-Elie O, Buchmann N, Lüscher A (2016) Larger yields of mixtures than monocultures of cultivated grassland species match with asynchrony in shoot growth among species but not with increased light interception. Field Crop Res 194:1–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Jackson LE, Roy J (1986) Growth patterns of Mediterranean annual and perennial grasses under simulated rainfall regimes of southern France and California. Acta Oecol 7:191–212Google Scholar
  45. Jackson LE, Strauss RB, Firestone MK, Bartolome JW (1988) Plant and soil N dynamics in California annual grassland. Plant Soil 110:9–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Jones MB, Woodmansee RG (1979) Biogeochemical cycling in annual grassland ecosystems. Bot Rev 45:111–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Keddy PA (2001) Competition, 2nd edn. Kluwer, DordrechtCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Klironomos JN (2002) Feedback with soil biota contributes to plant rarity and invasiveness in communities. Nature 417:67–70PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Knops JMH, Tilman D (2000) Dynamics of soil nitrogen and carbon accumulation for 61 years after agricultural abandonment. Ecology 81:88–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Kottek M, Grieser J, Beck C, Rudolf B, Rubel F (2006) World map of the Köppen-Geiger climate classification updated. Meteorol Z 15:259–263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Leff JW, Bardgett RD, Wilkinson A, Jackson BG, Pritchard WJ, de Long JR, Oakley S, Mason KE, Ostle NJ, Johnson D, Baggs EM, Fierer N (2018) Predicting the structure of soil communities from plant community taxonomy, phylogeny, and traits. ISME J 12:1794–1805PubMedPubMedCentralCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Leibold MA (1995) The niche concept revisited: mechanistic models and community context. Ecology 76:1371–1382CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Michaelsen J, Haston L, Davis FW (1987) 400 years of Central California precipitation variability reconstructed from tree rings. J Am Water Resour Assoc 23:809–818CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Mitchell CE, Agrawal AA, Bever JD, Gilbert GS, Hufbauer RA, Klironomos JN, Maron JL, Morris WF, Parker IM, Power AG, Seabloom EW, Torchin ME, Vazquez DP (2006) Biotic interactions and plant invasions. Ecol Lett 9:726–740PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Myers N, Mittermeier RA, Mittermeier CG, da Fonseca GAB, Kent J (2000) Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403:853–858CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Parker SS, Schimel JP (2010a) Invasive grasses increase nitrogen availability in California grassland soils. Invas Plant Sci Manag 3:40–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Parker SS, Schimel JP (2010b) Nassella pulchra and spatial patterns in soil resources in native California grassland. Grasslands 10:11–15Google Scholar
  58. Parker SS, Schimel JP (2011) Soil nitrogen availability and transformations differ between the summer and the growing season in a California grassland. Appl Soil Ecol 48:185–192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Parker SS, Seabloom EW, Schimel JP (2012) Grassland community composition drives small-scale spatial patterns in soil properties and processes. Geoderma 170:269–279CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Parker IM, Simberloff D, Lonsdale WM, Goodell K, Wonham M, Kareiva PM, Williamson MH, von Holle B, Moyle PB, Byers JE, Goldwasser L (1999) Impact: toward a framework for understanding the ecological effects of invaders. Biol Invasions 1:3–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Pearson DE, Ortega YK, Eren Ö, Hierro JL (2018) Community assembly theory as a framework for biological invasions. Trends Ecol Evol 33:313–325PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Ravenek JM, Mommer L, Visser EJ et al (2016) Linking root traits and competitive success in grassland species. Plant Soil 407:39–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Reichman OJ, Seabloom EW (2002) The role of pocket gophers as subterranean ecosystem engineers. Trends Ecol Evol 17:44–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Ren H, Eviner VT, Gui W, Wilson GWT, Cobb AB, Yang G, Zhang Y, Hu S, Bai Y (2018) Livestock grazing regulates ecosystem multifunctionality in semi-arid grassland. Funct Ecol 32:2790–2800CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Schaeffer SM, Homyak PM, Boot CM, Roux-Michollet D, Schimel JP (2017) Soil carbon and nitrogen dynamics throughout the summer drought in a California annual grassland. Soil Biol Biochem 115:54–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Schantz MC, Sheley RL, James JJ (2018) Effects of propagule pressure and priority effects on seedling recruitment during restoration of invaded grassland. J Arid Environ 150:62–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Seabloom EW (2007) Compensation and the stability of restored grassland communities. Ecol Appl 17:1876–1855PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Seabloom EW, Harpole WS, Reichman OJ, Tilman D (2003) Invasion, competitive dominance, and resource use by exotic and native California grassland species. Proc Natl Acad Sci 100:13384–13389PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Seabloom EW, Williams JW, Slayback D, Stoms DM, Viers JH, Dobson AP (2006) Human impacts, plant invasion, and imperiled, plant species in California. Ecol Appl 16:1338–1350PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Seabloom EW, Borer ET, Buckley YM et al (2015) Plant species' origin predicts dominance and response to nutrient enrichment and herbivores in global grasslands. Nat Commun 6:8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Semchenko M, Lepik A, Abakumova M, Zobel K (2018) Different sets of belowground traits predict the ability of plant species to suppress and tolerate their competitors. Plant Soil 424:157–169CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Shea K, Chesson P (2002) Community ecology theory as a framework for biological invasions. Trends Ecol Evol 17:170–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Smith T, Huston M (1989) A theory of the spatial and temporal dynamics of plant communities. Vegetatio 83:49–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Suding K, Larson J, Thorsos E et al (2004a) Species effects on resource supply rates: do they influence competitive interactions? Plant Ecol 175:47–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Suding KN, Gross KL, Houseman GR (2004b) Alternative states and positive feedbacks in restoration ecology. Trends Ecol Evol 19:46–53PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Thomson DM, Cruz-de Hoyos R, Cummings K, Schultz EL (2016) Why are native annual abundances low in invaded grasslands? Testing the effects of competition and seed limitation. Plant Ecol 217:431–442CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Tilman D (1982) Resource competition and community structure. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  78. Tilman D (1988) Plant strategies and the dynamics and structure of plant communities. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  79. Tilman D (1990a) Constraints and tradeoffs - toward a predictive theory of competition and succession. Oikos 58:3–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Tilman D (1990b) Mechanisms of plant competition for nutrients: the elements of a predictive theory of competition. In: Grace JB, Tilman D (eds) Perspectives on plant competition. Academic Press, New York, pp 117–141Google Scholar
  81. Turitzin SN (1982) Nutrient limitations to plant growth in a California serpentine grassland. Am Midl Nat 107:95–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Uricchio LH, Daws SC, Spear ER, Mordecai EA (2019) Priority effects and nonhierarchical competition shape species composition in a complex grassland community. Am Nat 193:213–226PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Vitousek PM (1990) Biological invasions and ecosystem processes - towards an integration of population biology and ecosystem studies. Oikos 57:7–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Wang Q, Xiao J, Ding J et al (2019) Differences in root exudate inputs and rhizosphere effects on soil N transformation between deciduous and evergreen trees. Plant Soil:1–13.
  85. Wedin D, Tilman D (1993) Competition among grasses along a nitrogen gradient - initial conditions and mechanisms of competition. Ecol Monogr 63:199–229CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Nature ConservancyLos AngelesUSA
  2. 2.Department of Physiological DiversityHelmholtz Center for Environmental Research – UFZLeipzigGermany
  3. 3.German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv)LeipzigGermany
  4. 4.Martin Luther University Halle-WittenbergHalle (Saale)Germany
  5. 5.Department of Ecology, Evolution, and BehaviorUniversity of MinnesotaSaint PaulUSA

Personalised recommendations