Leaf Traits, Neighbors, and Abiotic Factors: Ways That Context Can Mediate the Impact of Invasive Species on Nitrogen Cycling
Species invasions are more prevalent than ever before. While the addition of a species can dramatically change critical ecosystem processes, factors that mediate the direction and magnitude of those impacts have received less attention. A better understanding of the factors that mediate invasion impacts on ecosystem functioning is needed in order to target which exotic species will be most harmful and which systems are most vulnerable. The role of invasion on nitrogen (N) cycling is particularly important since N cycling controls ecosystem services that provision human health, e.g. nutrient retention and water quality.
We conducted a meta-analysis and in-depth studies focused on the invasive grass species, Microstegium vimineum, to better understand how (i) plant characteristics, (ii) invader abundance and neighbor identity, and (iii) environmental conditions mediate the impacts of invasion on N pools and fluxes. The results of our global meta-analysis support the concept that invasive species and reference community traits such as leaf %N and leaf C:N are useful for understanding invasion impacts on soil N cycling, but that trait dissimilarities between invaded and reference communities are most informative. Regarding the in-depth studies of Microstegium, we did not find evidence to suggest that invasion increases net nitrification as other studies have shown. Instead, we found that an interaction between its abundance and the neighboring plant identify were important for determining soil nitrate concentrations and net nitrification rates in the greenhouse. In field, we found that variability in environmental conditions mediated the impact of Microstegium invasion on soil N pools and fluxes, primarily net ammonification, between sites through direct, indirect, and interactive pathways. Notably, we detected a scenario in which forest openness has a negative direct effect and indirect positive effect on ammonification in sites with high soil moisture and organic matter. Collectively, our findings suggest that dissimilarity in plant community traits, neighbor identity, and environmental conditions can be important drivers of invasion impacts on ecosystem N cycling and should be considered when evaluating the ecosystem impacts of invasive species across heterogeneous landscapes.
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