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New Phytol. 2008;177(3):698-705. Epub 2007 Nov 27.

Small differences in arrival time influence composition and productivity of plant communities.

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Institute of Botany, University of Basel, Schönbeinstrasse 6, 4056 Basel, Switzerland.


'Who comes first' is decisive for plant community assembly and ecosystem properties. Early arrival or faster initial development of a species leads to space occupancy both above and below ground and contributes to species success. However, regular disturbance (e.g. biomass removal) might permit later-arriving or slower-developing species to catch up. Here, artificial communities of grassland species belonging to the plant functional types (PFTs) herb, grass and legume were used to test the effect of stepwise arrival (sowing) of PFTs. Dramatic effects were found as a result of a 3 wk arrival difference on composition and above-ground biomass that persisted over four harvests and two seasons. Priority effects, such as unequal germination time (arrival), and thus differences in community age structure, had lasting effects on PFT biomass contribution and associated ecosystem functioning. These effects were robust against above-ground disturbance. Benefits of earlier root formation outweighed above-ground species interaction. Earlier space occupancy and bigger reserve pools are the likely causes. Natural populations commonly exhibit age diversity and asynchrony of development among taxa. In experiments, artificial synchrony of arrival (sowing) may thus induce assembly routes favouring faster-establishing taxa, with consequences for ecosystem functioning (e.g. productivity). Founder effects, such as those observed here, could be even greater in communities of slow-growing species or forests, given their longer generation time and minor disturbance.

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