Competitive interactions between established grasses and woody plant seedlings under elevated CO₂ levels are mediated by soil water availability

A. Manea*, M. R. Leishman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

The expansion of woody plants into grasslands has been observed worldwide and is likely to have widespread ecological consequences. One proposal is that woody plant expansion into grasslands is driven in part by the rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. We have examined the effect of CO2 concentration on the competitive interactions between established C4 grasses and woody plant seedlings in a model grassland system. Woody plant seedlings were grown in mesocosms together with established C4 grasses in three competition treatments (root competition, shoot competition and root + shoot competition) under ambient and elevated CO2 levels. We found that the growth of the woody plant seedlings was suppressed by competition from grasses, with root and shoot competition having similar competitive effects on growth. In contrast to expectations, woody plant seedling growth was reduced at elevated CO2 levels compared to that at the ambient CO2 level across all competition treatments, with the most plausible explanation being reduced light and soil water availability in the elevated CO2 mesocosms. Reduced light and soil water availability in the elevated CO2 mesocosms was associated with an increased leaf area index of the grasses which offset the reductions in stomatal conductance and increased rainfall interception. The woody plant seedlings also had reduced ‘escapability’ (stem biomass and stem height) under elevated compared to ambient CO2 levels. Our results suggest that the expansion of woody plants into grasslands in the future will likely be context-dependent, with the establishment success of woody plant seedlings being strongly coupled to the CO2 response of competing grasses and to soil water availability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)499-506
Number of pages8
JournalOecologia
Volume177
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2015

Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Competition
  • Leaf area index
  • Soil water content
  • Woody plant encroachment

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