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Ecosystem properties determined by plant functional group identity

McLaren, J.R. and R. Turkington. 2010. Journal of Ecology 98:459-469


1. Ecosystem properties may be determined by the number of different species or groups of species in a community, the identity of those groups, and their relative abundance. The mass ratio theory predicts that the effect of species or groups of species on ecosystem properties will be dependent on their proportional abundance in a community.

2. Single plant functional groups (graminoids, legumes, non-leguminous forbs) were removed from a natural grassland in northern Canada to examine the role of group identity in determining both ecosystem properties and biomass compensation by remaining species. Removals were conducted across two different environmental treatments (fertilization and fungicide) to examine the context dependency of functional group identity effects.

3. The degree of biomass compensation in the first 4 years after removal was influenced by the identity of the functional group removed and also of those remaining. When graminoids were removed, none of the remaining functional groups compensated for the loss of biomass. Graminoids partially compensated for the removal of forbs or legumes, with the degree of compensation depending on environmental treatments.

4. Light interception, soil moisture and soil nutrients were all influenced by functional group identity, with graminoids having a greater impact than expected based on their biomass contribution to the community. Legumes, in contrast, had very little effect on any of the ecosystem properties measured.

5. For most ecosystem properties measured, the role of plant functional groups was not context dependent; functional groups had the same effect on ecosystem properties regardless of fertilization or fungicide treatments.

6. Synthesis. We have shown that the effects of losing a functional group do not solely depend on the group's dominance. In this northern grassland, there are greater effects of losing graminoids than one would predict based on their biomass contributions to the community, and functional group identity plays a critical role in determining the effects of diversity loss.

Key Words

biodiversity, ecosystem function, fertilization, mass ratio hypothesis, mycorrhizae,plant functional group, removal experiment