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Individual Highlight

The tortoise and the hare: Can the slow native plant win?

Photo of U.S. Forest Service scientists use a greenhouse in Washington State to grow bluebunch wheatgrass as part of their current reciprocal transplant project. This project is one of the largest and most intensive projects of its kind ever attempted. U.S. Forest Service scientists use a greenhouse in Washington State to grow bluebunch wheatgrass as part of their current reciprocal transplant project. This project is one of the largest and most intensive projects of its kind ever attempted. Snapshot : It has been suggested that exotic plants will be more successful than native plant species as a result of climate change. This is because exotics often exhibit stronger responses to disturbance, faster growth rates, and greater plasticity. In this study, we show that climate change can actually shift the balance in favor of natives when it creates conditions that favor the slower more "tortoise-like" strategies of some natives.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Pearson, Dean E. Ortega, Yvette K.
Research Location : Experimental gardens on the University of Montana Campus
Research Station : Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS)
Year : 2017
Highlight ID : 1401

Summary

Changes in climate are expected to alter native plant communities and influence their susceptibility to exotic plant invasions, with important ramifications for the services that these communities provide to humans (e.g., pollination, air purification, etc.). Yet how climate change will shift the balance and competition between plant species, including exotics and natives, is largely speculative. In this study, Forest Service scientists explored whether the outcomes of plant competition in response to simulated climate change could be predicted as a function of plant life-history strategies. Plant life-history theory predicts that “fast” species (those using high-resource uptake strategies to achieve rapid population growth) should outperform “slow” species (those using low-resource uptake and slow population growth strategies) under high resource conditions, but that slow species should win under low resource conditions. They competed spotted knapweed, a highly invasive exotic forb with a "fast" (hare) strategy that has taken over western United States grasslands, with the dominant native, a grass which exhibits a "slow" (tortoise) strategy. Key Findings: 1. The fast invader dominated under normal precipitation conditions. 2. The slow native won when precipitation declined. 3. While the research approach requires replication across more species, the findings suggest that life history theory may help predict which plant species, including exotics versus natives, will excel under future climate scenarios. 4. In plant communities where the natives are adapted to stressful conditions, climate-driven shifts toward more stressful conditions can favor natives over exotic plant invaders.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

 
  • University of Montana