Plant community responses to long-term fertilization: Changes in functional group abundance drive changes in species richness

Timothy L. Dickson, Katherine L. Gross

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


Declines in species richness due to fertilization are typically rapid and associated with increases in aboveground production. However, in a long-term experiment examining the impacts of fertilization in an early successional community, we found it took 14 years for plant species richness to significantly decline in fertilized plots, despite fertilization causing a rapid increase in aboveground production. To determine what accounted for this lag in the species richness response, we examined several potential mechanisms. We found evidence suggesting the abundance of one functional group-tall species with long-distance (runner) clonality-drove changes in species richness, and we found little support for other mechanisms. Tall runner species initially increased in abundance due to fertilization, then declined dramatically and were not abundant again until later in the experiment, when species richness and the combined biomass of all other functional groups (non-tall runner) declined. Over 86 % of the species found throughout the course of our study are non-tall runner, and there is a strong negative relationship between non-tall runner and tall runner biomass. We therefore suggest that declines in species richness in the fertilized treatment are due to high tall runner abundance that decreases the abundance and richness of non-tall runner species. By identifying the functional group that drives declines in richness due to fertilization, our results help to elucidate how fertilization decreases plant richness and also suggest that declines in richness due to fertilization can be lessened by controlling the abundance of species with a tall runner growth form.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1513-1520
Number of pages8
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2013


  • Clonal
  • Grassland
  • Long-term
  • Nitrogen fertilization
  • Species traits

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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