Seed arrival and ecological filters interact to assemble high-diversity plant communities

Jonathan A. Myers, Louisiana State University
Kyle E. Harms, Louisiana State University


Two prominent mechanisms proposed to structure biodiversity are niche-based ecological filtering and chance arrival of propagules from the species pool. Seed arrival is hypothesized to play a particularly strong role in high-diversity plant communities with large potential species pools and many rare species, but few studies have explored how seed arrival and local ecological filters interactively assemble species-rich communities in space and time. We experimentally manipulated seed arrival and multiple ecological filters in high-diversity, herbaceous-dominated groundcover communities in longleaf pine savannas, which contain the highest small-scale species richness in North America (up to .40 species/m2). We tested three hypotheses: (1) local communities constitute relatively open-membership assemblages, in which increased seed arrival from the species pool strongly increases species richness; (2) ecological filters imposed by local fire intensity and soil moisture influence recruitment and richness of immigrating species; and (3) ecological filters increase similarity in the composition of immigrating species. In a two-year factorial field experiment, we manipulated local fire intensity by increasing pre-fire fuel loads, soil moisture using rain shelters and irrigation, and seed arrival by adding seeds from the local species pool. Seed arrival increased species richness regardless of fire intensity and soil moisture but interacted with both ecological filters to influence community assembly. High-intensity fire decreased richness of resident species, suggesting an important abiotic filter. In contrast, high-intensity fire increased recruitment and richness of immigrating species, presumably by decreasing effects of other ecological filters (competition and resource limitation) in postfire environments. Drought decreased recruitment and richness of immigrating species, whereas wet soil conditions increased recruitment but decreased or had little effect on richness. Moreover, some ecological filters (wet soil conditions and, to a lesser extent, high-intensity fire) increased similarity in the composition of immigrating species, illustrating conditions that influence deterministic community assembly in species-rich communities. Our experiment provides insights into how dispersal-assembly mechanisms may interact with niche-assembly mechanisms in pace (spatial variation in disturbance) and time (temporal variation in resource availability) to structure high-diversity communities and can help guide conservation of threatened longleaf pine ecosystems in the face of habitat fragmentation and environmental change. © 2011 by the Ecological Society of America.