Soil Biota in an Ungrazed Grassland: Response to Annual Grass (Bromus tectorum) Invasion

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Ecological Applications





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Bromus tectorum is an exotic annual grass that currently dominates many western U.S. semi-arid ecosystems, and the effects of this grass on ecosystems in general, and soil biota specifically, are unknown. Bromus recently invaded two ungrazed and unburned perennial bunchgrass communities in southeastern Utah. This study compared the soil food-web structure of the two native grassland associations (Stipa [S] and Hilaria [H]), with and without the presence of Bromus. Perennial grass and total vascular-plant cover were higher in S than in H plots, while quantities of ground litter were similar. Distribution of live and dead plant material was highly clumped in S and fairly homogenous in H. Soil food-web structure was different between H and S, with lower trophic levels more abundant in H and higher trophic levels more abundant in S. In Bromus-invaded plots, the quantity of ground litter was 2.2 times higher in Hilaria–Bromus (HB) than in H plots, and 2.8 times higher in Stipa–Bromus (SB) than in S plots. Soil biota in HB generally responded to the Bromus invasion in an opposite manner than in SB, e.g., if a given component of the food web increased in one community, it generally decreased in the other. Active bacteria decreased in H vs. HB, while increasing in S vs. SB. Soil and live plant-infecting fungi were the exception, as they increased in both types of invaded plots relative to uninvaded plots. Dead-plant-infecting fungi decreased in H vs. HB and increased in S vs. SB. Most higher-trophic-level organisms increased in HB relative to H, while decreasing in SB relative to S. Given the mixed response to invasion, the structure of these soil food webs appears to be controlled by both plant inputs and internal dynamics between trophic levels. When compared to non-invaded sites, soil and soil food-web characterisitics of the newly invaded sites included: (1) lower species richness and lower absolute numbers of fungi and invertebrates; (2) greater abundance of active bacteria; (3) similar species of bacteria and fungi as those found in soils invaded over 50 yr ago; (4) higher levels of silt (thus greater fertility and soil water-holding capacity); and (5) a more continuous cover of living and dead plant material (thus facilitating germination of the large-seeded Bromus). These results illustrate that (1) soil food-web structure can vary widely within what would generally be considered one vegetation type (semi-arid grassland), depending on plant species composition within that type, and (2) addition of a common resource can evoke disparate responses from individual food-web compartments, depending on their original structure.


Originally published by The Ecological Society of America.