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PLoS One. 2015 Apr 2;10(4):e0123128. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0123128. eCollection 2015.

Regime shift by an exotic nitrogen-fixing shrub mediates plant facilitation in primary succession.

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Department of Agriculture, University of Naples Federico II, via Università 100, Portici (Naples), Italy.


Ecosystem invasion by non-native, nitrogen-fixing species is a global phenomenon with serious ecological consequences. However, in the Mediterranean basin few studies addressed the impact of invasion by nitrogen-fixing shrubs on soil quality and hydrological properties at local scale, and the possible effects on succession dynamics and ecosystem invasibility by further species. In this multidisciplinary study we investigated the impact of Genista aetnensis (Biv.) DC., an exotic nitrogen-fixing shrub, on the Vesuvius Grand Cone (Southern Italy). Specifically, we tested the hypotheses that the invasion of G. aetnensis has a significant impact on soil quality, soil hydrological regime, local microclimate and plant community structure, and that its impact increases during the plant ontogenetic cycle. We showed that G. aetnensis, in a relatively short time-span (i.e. ~ 40 years), has been able to build-up an island of fertility under its canopy, by accumulating considerable stocks of C, N, and P in the soil, and by also improving the soil hydrological properties. Moreover, G. aetnensis mitigates the daily range of soil temperature, reducing the exposure of coexisting plants to extremely high temperatures and water loss by soil evaporation, particularly during the growing season. Such amelioration of soil quality, coupled with the mitigation of below-canopy microclimatic conditions, has enhanced plant colonization of the barren Grand Cone slopes, by both herbaceous and woody species. These results suggest that the invasion of G. aetnensis could eventually drive to the spread of other, more resource-demanding exotic species, promoting alternative successional trajectories that may dramatically affect the local landscape. Our study is the first record of the invasion of G. aetnensis, an additional example of the regime shifts driven by N-fixing shrubs in Mediterranean region. Further studies are needed to identity specific management practices that can limit the spread and impacts of this species.

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