Evidence of physiological decoupling from grassland ecosystem drivers by an encroaching woody shrub


Shrub encroachment of grasslands is a transformative ecological process by which native woody species increase in cover and frequency and replace the herbaceous community. Mechanisms of encroachment are typically assessed using temporal data or experimental manipulations, with few large spatial assessments of shrub physiology. In a mesic grassland in North America, we measured inter- and intra-annual variability in leaf δ¹³C in Cornus drummondii across a grassland landscape with varying fire frequency, presence of large grazers and topographic variability. This assessment of changes in individual shrub physiology is the largest spatial and temporal assessment recorded to date. Despite a doubling of annual rainfall (in 2008 versus 2011), leaf δ¹³C was statistically similar among and within years from 2008-11 (range of −28 to −27‰). A topography*grazing interaction was present, with higher leaf δ¹³C in locations that typically have more bare soil and higher sensible heat in the growing season (upland topographic positions and grazed grasslands). Leaf δ¹³C from slopes varied among grazing contrasts, with upland and slope leaf δ¹³C more similar in ungrazed locations, while slopes and lowlands were more similar in grazed locations. In 2011, canopy greenness (normalized difference vegetation index – NDVI) was assessed at the centroid of individual shrubs using high-resolution hyperspectral imagery. Canopy greenness was highest mid-summer, likely reflecting temporal periods when C assimilation rates were highest. Similar to patterns seen in leaf δ¹³C, NDVI was highest in locations that typically experience lowest sensible heat (lowlands and ungrazed). The ability of Cornus drummondii to decouple leaf physiological responses from climate variability and fire frequency is a likely contributor to the increase in cover and frequency of this shrub species in mesic grassland and may be generalizable to other grasslands undergoing woody encroachment.



Grassland, Shrub encroachment, Cornus drummondii