Evidence of physiological decoupling from grassland ecosystem drivers by an encroaching woody shrub

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Abstract

Shrub encroachment of grasslands is a transformative ecological process by which native woody species increase in cover and frequency and replace the herbaceous community. Mechanisms of encroachment are typically assessed using temporal data or experimental manipulations, with few large spatial assessments of shrub physiology. In a mesic grassland in North America, we measured inter- and intra-annual variability in leaf d13C in Cornus drummondii across a grassland landscape with varying fire frequency, presence of large grazers and topographic variability. This assessment of changes in individual shrub physiology is the largest spatial and temporal assessment recorded to date. Despite a doubling of annual rainfall (in 2008 versus 2011), leaf d13C was statistically similar among and within years from 2008-11 (range of 228 to 227%). A topography grazing interaction was present, with higher leaf d13C in locations that typically have more bare soil and higher sensible heat in the growing season (upland topographic positions and grazed grasslands). Leaf d13C from slopes varied among grazing contrasts, with upland and slope leaf d13C more similar in ungrazed locations, while slopes and lowlands were more similar in grazed locations. In 2011, canopy greenness (normalized difference vegetation index - NDVI) was assessed at the centroid of individual shrubs using high-resolution hyperspectral imagery. Canopy greenness was highest mid-summer, likely reflecting temporal periods when C assimilation rates were highest. Similar to patterns seen in leaf d13C, NDVI was highest in locations that typically experience lowest sensible heat (lowlands and ungrazed). The ability of Cornus drummondii to decouple leaf physiological responses from climate variability and fire frequency is a likely contributor to the increase in cover and frequency of this shrub species in mesic grassland and may be generalizable to other grasslands undergoing woody encroachment. Copyright © 2013 Nippert et al.

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Nippert, J. B., Ocheltree, T. W., Orozco, G. L., Ratajczak, Z., Ling, B., & Skibbe, A. M. (2013). Evidence of physiological decoupling from grassland ecosystem drivers by an encroaching woody shrub. PLoS ONE, 8(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0081630

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