Small herbivores and abiotic heterogeneity promote trait variation of a saltmarsh plant in local communities

Qingqing Chen*, Christian Smit, Ido Pen, Han Olff

*Bijbehorende auteur voor dit werk

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Intraspecific trait variation (ITV) enables plants to respond to global changes. However, causes for ITV, especially from biotic components such as herbivory, are not well understood. We explored whether small vertebrate herbivores (hares and geese) impact ITV of a dominant clonal plant (Elytrigia atherica) in local communities. Moreover, we looked at the relative importance of their direct (e.g., selective grazing) and indirect effects (altering genotypic richness/diversity and abiotic environment) on ITV. We used exclosures at two successional stages in a Dutch saltmarsh, where grazing pressure at the early successional stage was ca. 1.5 times higher than that of the intermediate successional stage. We measured key functional traits of E. atherica including height, aboveground biomass, flowering (flower or not), specific leaf area, and leaf dry matter content in local communities (1 m × 1 m plots) inside and outside the exclosures. We determined genotypic richness and diversity of each plant using molecular markers. We further measured abiotic variations in topography and clay thickness (a proxy for soil total nitrogen). Structural equation models revealed that small herbivores significantly promoted ITV in height and flowering at the early successional stage, while they marginally promoted ITV in height at the intermediate successional stage. Moreover, the direct effects of herbivores played a major role in promoting ITV. Small herbivores decreased genotypic diversity at the intermediate successional stage, but genotypic richness and diversity did not impact ITV. Small herbivores did not alter topographic variation and variation in clay thickness, but these variations increased ITV in all traits at the early successional stage. Small herbivores may not only impact trait means in plants as studies have shown but also their ITV.

Originele taal-2English
Artikelnummere12633
TijdschriftPeerJ
Volume9
DOI's
StatusPublished - 22-dec-2021

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