Mechanisms of structural change derived from patterns of seedling emergence and mortality in a semi-natural meadow

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Questions: Is seedling emergence limited by the set of viable seeds, by incompatibility between the phenology of seed shedding and timing of mowing, or by dry weather in germination periods? Does seedling mortality fluctuate with season and weather?

Location: Negrentino, southern Alps, Switzerland.

Methods: Fecundity estimates of the dominant grass Bromus erectus; highly frequent counts of spontaneous seedlings by species and calculation of a community-level average mortality rate across 5 years; species-level records of seed shedding date and measurements of seed mass; measurement of soil moisture.

Results: B. erectus produced 143.9 viable seeds/m2/year while the density of its seedlings was a 55 times smaller fraction. Grasses had fewer seedlings than forbs and their phenology of seed shedding was less compatible with mowing date. Soil moisture was a strong determinant of seedling emergence in spring and less so in autumn. Average seedling mortality declined with age of the populations and reached a maximum in an extremely dry summer. In relatively wet summers establishment success was positively related to seed mass.

Conclusion: Community structure is susceptible to drought through mechanisms that selectively reduce recruits of coexisting plant functional groups. We propose that (1) more frequent intense droughts tend to reduce species that depend on frequent recruitment from seed, hence favour long-lived clonally spreading species, (2) drought timing selects between species with different germination phenology and drought resistance, and (3) drought impacts can be mitigated by changing management regimes that affect seed shedding.
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