Effects of resource availability on seedling recruitment in a fire-maintained savanna


The herbaceous ground cover of the longleaf pine ecosystem harbors the highest plant species richness in North America, with up to 50 species per square meter, but the mechanisms that regulate this diversity are not well understood. In this system, variability in seedling recruitment events may best explain the extremely high small-scale species richness and its relationship to soil moisture and system net primary productivity. To understand the potential mechanistic controls on species richness, we used a long-term resource manipulation study across a natural soil moisture gradient to assess environmental controls on seedling recruitment. We considered the availability of resources to be an indicator of seedling safe-site supply, and also manipulated seed availability to examine the relative importance of recruitment limitations on seedling diversity. We found that water availability regulated the number of species in the seedling community regardless of the underlying natural moisture gradient, and that this effect may result from differential responses of seedling guilds to resource availability. Water supply was more important than seed supply in determining seedling establishment, suggesting that appropriate sites for regeneration are a factor limiting seedling success. This is the first study that shows that the episodic supply of microsites for recruitment could influence species richness in the highly threatened and biodiverse longleaf pine savanna.

Oecologia, (163), 1, pp. 171–180