Date of Award:

2015

Document Type:

Thesis

Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)

Department:

Ecology

Advisor/Chair:

Kari Veblen

Abstract

Plant spatial patterns have been studied to gain insight into plant interactions such as competition and facilitation (positive plant interactions). The stress gradient hypothesis predicts that as environmental stress increases facilitation dominates, while competition dominates in less stressful conditions.

Beneficial plants (nurses) can create favorable abiotic conditions for subanopy plants. Additionally, palatable herbaceous species growing under nurse shrub canopies benefit from physical protection.

I investigated spatial associations between Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis) and three native grasses (Poa secunda, Elymus elymoides, and Pseudoroegneria spicata) across a rainfall gradient in the Great Basin, USA. I also explored the effect of grazing on grass-shrub spatial associations. I hypothesized that positive shrub-grass spatial associations would become more frequent at lower rainfall levels; I further hypothesized that 1) at intermediate levels of stress, positive grass-shrub spatial associations would dominate and 2) at extreme levels of stress, positive grass-shrub spatial associations and interactions would no longer dominate. At high moisture stress, the addition of grazing stress may limit the nurse’s ability to provide to benefits to subcanopy plants.

Cover of P. secunda was greater in shrub canopy microsites than interspaces at low to moderate levels of rainfall. Cover and density of E. elymoides were greater in sagebrush canopies over most rainfall levels. Elymus elymoides and P. spicata were taller and narrower in basal width and less likely to be grazed in canopy versus interspace microsites.

I next investigated the effects of grazing intensity over a rainfall gradient and found a significant interaction of rainfall and microsite on P. secunda cover. Poa secunda formed positive interactions with A. tridentata at lower rainfall levels, regardless of grazing intensity. Its cover was significantly greater in interspaces at high rainfall compared to low rainfall sites. Elymus elymoides density was greater in canopy vs. interspace microsites, regardless of rainfall level or grazing intensity.

Plant spatial associations can indicate which nurse microsites are favorable to plant growth and may improve seeding or planting success during ecological restoration. My results suggest that exploiting sagebrush canopy microsites for restoration of native perennial grasses would improve plant establishment, growth or survival particularly in drier areas.

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