Question: What are the physical and chemical effects of plant litter on annual grassland community composition, above-ground net primary production (ANPP), and density?
Location: California annual grassland.
Methods: We manipulated litter and light levels independently and in concert. Litter removal and litter addition treatments tested both the physical and chemical impacts of litter's presence. We additionally simulated the effect of litter physical shading by using shade cloth, and added powdered litter to test for the chemical impacts of decomposing litter.
Results: Increased whole litter and shading decreased grass germination and establishment, but not that of forbs or legumes. Species shifts occurred within all groups across treatments, including a transition from small-seeded to large-seeded grass and legume species with increased shading. ANPP was highest in control plots (473 ± 59 g/m2), and species richness was highest in litter removal plots. While the physical effects of litter via shading were significant, the chemical effects of adding powdered litter were negligible.
Conclusions: This work suggests that over one growing season, the physical impacts of litter are more important than chemical impacts in shaping community structure and ANPP in annual grasslands. Changes in light availability with altered litter inputs drive shifts in species and functional group composition. Litter feedbacks to ANPP and species composition of local patches may help maintain diversity and stabilize ANPP in this grassland.
Nomenclature: Hickman (1993).