Competitive effects of shrubs and grasses in prairie

Köchy, M., and S. D. Wilson (2000)

We investigated the relative contributions of size and growth form (biomass allocation) to competitive effects between grasses and shrubs in western Canada for two years. We measured the effects of grasses and shrubs on each other at the population level using removal experiments in natural vegetation. In prairie where shrub abundance was low, shrubs suppressed grasses as much as grasses suppressed shrubs, even though shrubs had six times more standing crop. In adjacent brush clumps, however, where shrub standing crop was 37 times grass standing crop, shrubs suppressed grasses strongly, whereas grasses did not suppress shrubs. Shrubs reduced available soil nitrogen more strongly than grasses did, but shrubs and grasses did not differ in their effects on light or soil water. On a per-gram basis, however, shrubs had smaller effects on light, nitrogen, and water consumption than grasses did. In spite of their smaller per-gram effects on resources, the secondary growth of shrubs allowed them to accumulate more mass and height, and to eventually displace grasses. During this process, competition between the woody and the herbaceous growth form changed from symmetric to asymmetric.

Oikos 91:385-395. [Alternative print version]