Dominance hierarchies, diversity and species richness of vascular plants in an alpine meadow: contrasting short and medium term responses to simulated global change

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Juha M. Alatalo
Chelsea, J. Little
Annika Jägerbrand
Ulf Molau

We studied the impact of simulated global change on a high alpine meadow plant community. Specifically, we examined whether short-term (5 years) responses are good predictors for medium-term (7 years) changes in the system by applying a factorial warming and nutrient manipulation to 20 plots in Latnjajaure, subarctic Sweden. Seven years of experimental warming and nutrient enhancement caused dramatic shifts in dominance hierarchies in response to the nutrient and the combined warming and nutrient enhancement treatments. Dominance hierarchies in the meadow moved from a community being dominated by cushion plants, deciduous, and evergreen shrubs to a community being dominated by grasses, sedges, and forbs. Short-term responses were shown to be inconsistent in their ability to predict medium-term responses for most functional groups, however, grasses showed a consistent and very substantial increase in response to nutrient addition over the seven years.

The non-linear responses over time point out the importance of longer-term studies with repeated measurements to be able to better predict future changes. Forecasted changes to temperature and nutrient availability have implications for trophic interactions, and may ultimately influence the access to and palatability of the forage for grazers. Depending on what anthropogenic change will be most pronounced in the future (increase in nutrient deposits, warming, or a combination of them both), different shifts in community dominance hierarchies may occur. Generally, this study supports the productivity–diversity relationship found across arctic habitats, with community diversity peaking in mid-productivity systems and degrading as nutrient availability increases further. This is likely due the increasing competition in plant–plant interactions and the shifting dominance structure with grasses taking over the experimental plots, suggesting that global change could have high costs to biodiversity in the Arctic.

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