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Temperature and functional traits influence differences in nitrogen uptake capacity between native and invasive grasses

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Performance differences between native and exotic invasive plants are often considered static, but invasive grasses may achieve growth advantages in western North America shrublands and steppe under only optimal growing conditions. We examine differences in N uptake and several morphological variables that influence uptake at temperatures between 5 and 25 °C. We contrast two native perennial grasses in western North America: Elymus elymoides and Pseudoroegneria spicata; two invasive annual grasses: Bromus tectorum and Taeniatherum caput-medusae; and one highly selected non-native perennial grass: Agropyron cristatum. The influence of temperature on N uptake is poorly characterized, yet these invasive annual grasses are known to germinate in warm soils in the autumn, and both experience cool soils during the short growing season following snowmelt in the spring. To further explore the influence of temperature on the correlation between morphological variables and N uptake, our data are applied to a previously published path model and one proposed here. Differences in N uptake between native and invasive grasses were small at the lowest temperature, but were large at the highest temperature. At lower temperatures, uptake of N by annuals and perennials was correlated with leaf N and mass. At higher temperatures, uptake by annuals was correlated only with these leaf traits, but uptake by perennials was correlated with these leaf traits as well as root N and mass. Consequently, our results imply that annual grasses face fewer morphological constraints on N uptake than perennial grasses, and annual grasses may gain further advantage in warmer temperature conditions or during more frequent warm periods.

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This work is a contribution from the USDA Area Wide EBIPM project. Special thanks to J. Williams, S. Felix, R. Watson and the USU Crop Physiology Laboratory. R. Ryel, C. Boyd, and three anonymous reviewers provided excellent comments on previous versions of this manuscript. Mention of trade names or other proprietary information is made for the convenience of the reader and does not imply endorsement by the USDA, Agricultural Research Service.

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Correspondence to A. Joshua Leffler.

Additional information

Communicated by Zoe Cardon.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Companion to Fig. 2 and Table 2. Excel spreadsheet with a matrix of P-values indicating Tukey-adjusted multiple comparisons for the temperature X species effect for the full analysis of SARM (XLS 23 kb)

Additional graphs of parameters in Table 4. Values are means with 95 % confidence intervals for each species and temperature combination (PDF 680 kb)

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Leffler, A.J., James, J.J. & Monaco, T.A. Temperature and functional traits influence differences in nitrogen uptake capacity between native and invasive grasses. Oecologia 171, 51–60 (2013).

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  • Cheatgrass
  • Exotic species
  • Medusahead
  • Specific absorption rate