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Seed-bank structure and plant-recruitment conditions regulate the dynamics of a grassland-shrubland Chihuahuan ecotone.

Moreno-de las Heras, M. and Turnbull, L. and Wainwright, J. (2016) 'Seed-bank structure and plant-recruitment conditions regulate the dynamics of a grassland-shrubland Chihuahuan ecotone.', Ecology., 97 (9). pp. 2303-2318.


Large areas of desert grasslands in southwestern USA have shifted to sparse shrublands dominated by drought-tolerant woody species over the last 150 years, accompanied by accelerated soil erosion. An important step towards the understanding of patterns in species dominance and vegetation change at desert grassland-shrubland transitions is the study of environmental limitations imposed by the shrub-encroachment phenomenon on plant establishment. Here, we analyze the structure of soil seed-banks, environmental limitations for seed germination (i.e., soil-water availability and temperature) and simulated seedling emergence and early establishment of dominant species (black grama, Bouteloua eriopoda, and creosotebush, Larrea tridentata) across a Chihuahuan grassland-shrubland ecotone (Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, USA). Average viable seed density in soils across the ecotone is generally low (200-400 seeds m−2), although is largely concentrated in densely vegetated areas (with peaks up to 800-1200 seeds m−2 in vegetated patches). Species composition in the seed-bank is strongly affected by shrub encroachment, with seed densities of grass species sharply decreasing in shrub-dominated sites. Environmental conditions for seed germination and seedling emergence are synchronized with the summer monsoon. Soil-moisture conditions for seedling establishment of B. eriopoda take place with a recurrence interval ranging between 5 and 8 years for grassland and shrubland sites, respectively, and are favored by strong monsoonal precipitation. Limited L. tridentata seed dispersal and a narrow range of rainfall conditions for early seedling establishment (50-100 mm for 5-6 consecutive weeks) constrain shrub-recruitment pulses to localized and episodic decadal events (9-25 years recurrence intervals) generally associated with late-summer rainfall. Re-establishment of B. eriopoda in areas now dominated by L. tridentata is strongly limited by the lack of seeds and decreased plant-available soil moisture for seedling establishment.

Item Type:Article
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Publisher statement:Copyright by the Ecological Society of America
Date accepted:04 March 2016
Date deposited:15 March 2016
Date of first online publication:01 September 2016
Date first made open access:06 October 2016

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