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Oecologia. 2006 Jun;148(3):373-83. Epub 2006 Feb 18.

The role of below-ground competition during early stages of secondary succession: the case of 3-year-old Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.) seedlings in an abandoned grassland.

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  • 1Grassland Ecosystem Research Team, INRA, Agronomy Research Unit, 234 Avenue du Brézet, 63039, Clermont-Ferrand Cédex, France. picon@clermont.inra.fr


In abandoned or extensively managed grasslands, the mechanisms involved in pioneer tree species success are not fully explained. Resource competition among plants and microclimate modifications have been emphasised as possible mechanisms to explain variation of survivorship and growth. In this study, we evaluated a number of mechanisms that may lead to successful survival and growth of seedlings of a pioneer tree species (Pinus sylvestris) in a grass-dominated grassland. Three-year-old Scots pines were planted in an extensively managed grassland of the French Massif Central and for 2 years were either maintained in bare soil or subjected to aerial and below-ground interactions induced by grass vegetation. Soil temperatures were slightly higher in bare soil than under the grass vegetation, but not to an extent explaining pine growth differences. The tall grass canopy reduced light transmission by 77% at ground level and by 20% in the upper part of Scots pine seedlings. Grass vegetation presence also significantly decreased soil volumetric water content (Hv) and soil nitrate in spring and in summer. In these conditions, the average tree height was reduced by 5% compared to trees grown in bare soil, and plant biomass was reduced by 85%. Scots pine intrinsic water-use efficiency (A/g), measured by leaf gas-exchange, increased when Hv decreased owing to a rapid decline of stomatal conductance (g). This result was also confirmed by delta 13C analyses of needles. A summer 15N labelling of seedlings and grass vegetation confirmed the higher NO3 capture capacity of grass vegetation in comparison with Scots pine seedlings. Our results provide evidence that the seedlings' success was linked to tolerance of below-ground resource depletion (particularly water) induced by grass vegetation based on morphological and physiological plasticity as well as to resource conservation.

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