1. We evaluated the responses of native grassland sods to a variety of types of disturbance in order to assess hypotheses about the competitive effects of established vegetation on seed germination and seedling establishment. In particular, we consider whether germination is more responsive to the magnitude and duration of vegetation removal (competitive release) or to individual disturbance types (specific effects). 2. Field-collected sods of coastal tallgrass prairie were subjected to no manipulation, cutting with clippings left, cutting with clippings removed (hayed), burning, and complete destruction of established vegetation under greenhouse conditions. The emergence and fate of seedlings, as well as light penetration through the canopy, were followed for a period of 4.5 months. 3. Total seedling emergence increased from cut to control, hayed, burned and plants-removed treatments. Several periods of increased seedling emergence suggested responses to both light penetration and seasonal change. 4. Species richness was lowest in cut sods and highest in sods that had plants removed or were burned. Rarefaction analysis showed that these differences were largely those expected from differences in seedling number, except for the cut treatment, which produced fewer species per seedling than other treatments. 5. Indicator species analysis and ordination methods revealed that seedling community composition overlapped strongly across all treatments, although the area of ordination space did increase with increasing numbers of seedlings. 6. Overall, most of the effects of disturbance could be explained by cumulative light penetration to the soil surface, an indicator of total competitive release, although a few specific effects could be found (particularly for the cutting treatment). Thus, these results generally support the competitive release hypothesis.
Additional Publication Details
Effects of disturbance on germination and seedling establishment in a coastal prairie grassland: A test of the competitive release hypothesis