Shrub patches capture tumble plants: potential evidence for a self-reinforcing pattern in a semiarid shrub encroached grassland
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Background and aims
The development of fertile patches within an infertile matrix is a common phenomenon in drylands. Shrub-centered expansion of fertile islands is generally attributed to processes of sediment erosion and deposition, but there have been fewer studies of how litter might contribute to the development of fertile islands in semiarid shrub grassland.
We quantified the capture of two tumble plant species (Cleistogenes squarrosa, Salsola collina; also known as tumble weeds) by shrubs across ten sites across 38,000 km2 of a semiarid grassland encroached by Caragana microphylla.
Tumble plants are plants that blow across the grassland propelled by strong winds. Both tumble plant species were found over extensive areas of semiarid grassland, and their distribution coincides with the distribution of Caragana microphylla. Biomass production of both tumble plants averaged 12.2 g m−2 (range: 1.0 to 25.0 g m−2) and litter accumulation (amount accruing from wind-blown plants) of both tumble plants was significantly greater beneath shrubs (94.5 ± 28.9 g m−2 mean ± SE) than in the interspaces (3.3 ± 1.4 g m−2). Most of the material collecting under Caragana microphylla comprised tumble plants. Increases in the area of Caragana microphylla patches did not correspond to greater tumble plant capture. However, the supply of tumble plants was the strongest predictor of capture within shrub hummocks, suggesting that tumble plant capture is source limited rather than sink limited. Our structural equation model indicates that increases in grass cover and height were indirectly and negatively associated with tumble plant capture by reducing the tumble plant supply. Contrary to prediction, shrub height and shrub patch area had no overall effect on the tumble plant capture.
Overall, we maintain that the capture of tumble plants by shrubs is an important self-maintaining mechanism of shrub-encroached grasslands. Tumble plant abundance is predicted to increase with increasing surface human disturbance and aridity. Therefore, the “shrub-litter island” effect is likely to be an important mechanism for maintaining and promoting the encroachment of shrubs into semiarid grasslands.
KeywordsFertile island Shrub Temperate grassland Tumble plants Encroachment
This study was partially funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41671044), the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2016YFC0500603, 2017YFE0104500), Fundamental Research Funds for Central Nonprofit Scientific Institution (931-8), and Special Funding for the Modern Agricultural Technology System of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture.
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