Selective manipulation of a non-dominant plant and its herbivores affects an old-field plant community
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Competition and herbivory can interact to influence the recovery of plant communities from disturbance. Previous attention has focused on the roles of dominant plant species in structuring plant communities, leaving the roles of subordinate species often overlooked. In this study, we examined how manipulating the density of a subordinate plant species, Solanum carolinense, and its insect herbivores influenced an old-field plant community in northern Florida following a disturbance. Five years following the disturbance, the initial densities of S. carolinense planted at the start of the experiment negatively influenced total plant cover and species diversity, and the cover of some grasses (e.g., Paspalum urvillei) and forbs (e.g., Rubus trivalis). Selectively removing herbivores from S. carolinense increased S. carolinense abundance (both stem densities and cover), increased the total cover of plants in the surrounding plant community, and affected plant community composition. Some plant species increased (e.g., Digitaria ciliaris, Solidago altissima) and others decreased (e.g., Paspalum notatum, Cynodon dactylon) in cover in response to herbivore removal. Herbivore effects on plant community metrics did not depend on S. carolinense density (no significant herbivory by density interaction), suggesting that even at low densities, a reduction of S. carolinense herbivores can influence the rest of the plant community. The recovery of the plant community was context dependent, depending on site- and plot-level differences in underlying environmental conditions and pre-disturbance plant community composition. We demonstrate that the density of and herbivory on a single subordinate plant species can affect the structure of an entire plant community.
KeywordsContext-dependency Competition Density manipulation Plant communities Recovery Selective removal
We thank J. Simonis, J. Fort, C. Venner, J. Hines, and numerous REU students for helping to establish and maintain the project over the 5 years. We thank the staff at the University of Florida North Florida Research and Education Center for their logistical support. Comments from Joshua Grinath greatly improved this manuscript. This project was funded by NSF DEB-0717221 to N. Underwood, and NSF DEB-0716922 and NRI, CSREES, USDA Grant 2006-35320-16686 to S. Halpern.
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