Abiotic constraints on the competitive ability of exotic and native grasses in a Pacific Northwest prairie

In prairie ecosystems, abiotic constraints on competition can structure plant communities; however, the extent to which competition between native and exotic plant species is constrained by environmental factors is still debated. The objective of our study was to use paired field and greenhouse experiments to evaluate the competitive dynamics between two native (Danthonia californica and Deschampsia cespitosa) and two exotic (Schedonorus arundinaceus and Lolium multiflorum) grass species under varying nutrient and moisture conditions in an upland prairie in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. We hypothesized the two invasive, exotic grasses would be more competitive under high-nutrient, moderate-moisture conditions, resulting in the displacement of native grasses from these environments. In the field, the experimental reduction of competition resulted in shorter, wider plants, but only the annual grass, Lolium multiflorum, produced more aboveground biomass when competition was reduced. In the greenhouse, the two exotic grasses produced more total biomass than the two native grasses. Competitive hierarchies were influenced by nutrient and/or moisture treatments for the two exotic grasses, but not for the two native grasses. L. multiflorumdominated competitive interactions with all other grasses across treatments. In general, S. arundinaceus dominated when in competition with native grasses, and D. cespitosa produced the most biomass in monoculture or under interspecific competition with the other native grass, D. californica. D. californica, D. cespitosa, and S. arundinaceus all produced more biomass in high-moisture, high-nutrient environments, and D. cespitosa, L. multiflorum, and S. arundinaceusallocated more biomass belowground in the low nutrient treatment. Taken together, these experiments suggest the competitive superiority of the exotic grasses, especially L. multiflorum, but, contrary to our hypothesis, the native grasses were not preferentially excluded from nutrient-rich, moderately wet environments.