Cleland, E. E., S. L. Collins, T. L. Dickson, E. C. Farrer, K. L. Gross, L. A. Gherardi, L. Hallett, R. Hobbs, J. Hsu, L. Turnbul, and K. N. Suding. 2013. Sensitivity of grassland plant community composition to spatial vs. temporal variation in precipitation. Ecology 94:1687-1696.
Climate gradients shape spatial variation in the richness and composition of plant communities. Given future predicted changes in climate means and variability, and likely regional variation in the magnitudes of these changes, it is important to determine how temporal variation in climate influences temporal variation in plant community structure. Here, we evaluated how species richness, turnover, and composition of grassland plant communities responded to interannual variation in precipitation by synthesizing long-term data from grasslands across the United States. We found that mean annual precipitation (MAP) was a positive predictor of species richness across sites, but a positive temporal relationship between annual precipitation and richness was only evident within two sites with low MAP. We also found higher average rates of species turnover in dry sites that in turn had a high proportion of annual species, although interannual rates of species turnover were surprisingly high across all locations. Annual species were less abundant than perennial species at nearly all sites, and our analysis showed that the probability of a species being lost or gained from one year to the next increased with decreasing species abundance. Bray-Curtis dissimilarity from one year to the next, a measure of species composition change that is influenced mainly by abundant species, was insensitive to precipitation at all sites. These results suggest that the richness and turnover patterns we observed were driven primarily by rare species, which comprise the majority of the local species pools at these grassland sites. These findings are consistent with the idea that short-lived and less abundant species are more sensitive to interannual climate variability than longer-lived and more abundant species. We conclude that among grassland ecosystems, xeric grasslands are likely to exhibit the greatest responsiveness of community composition (richness and turnover) to predicted future increases in interannual precipitation variability. Over the long-term, species composition may shift to reflect spatial patterns of mean precipitation; however, perennial dominated systems will be buffered against rising interannual variation, while systems that have a large number of rare, annual species will show the greatest temporal variability in species composition in response to rising interannual variability in precipitation.
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