Experimental evidence that soil heterogeneity enhances plant diversity during community assembly

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Williams, Brandon M.
Houseman, Gregory R.

Brandon M. Williams and Gregory R. Houseman Experimental evidence that soil heterogeneity enhances plant diversity during community assembly J Plant Ecol (2014) 7 (5): 461-469 first published online October 25, 2013



Environmental heterogeneity is a primary mechanism explaining species coexistence and extant patterns of diversity. Despite strong theoretical support and ample observational evidence, few experimental studies in plant communities have been able to demonstrate a causal link between environmental heterogeneity and plant diversity. This lack of experimental evidence suggests that either fine-scale heterogeneity has weak effects on plant diversity or previous experiments have been unable to effectively manipulate heterogeneity. Here, we utilize a unique soil manipulation to test whether fine-scale soil heterogeneity will increase plant richness through species sorting among experimental patch types.


This experiment was conducted in the tallgrass prairie region of south-central Kansas, USA. We utilized the inherent variation found in the vertical soil profile, which varied in both biotic and abiotic characteristics, and redistributed these strata into either homogeneous or heterogeneous spatial arrangements in 2.4 x 2.4 m plots. After the soil manipulation, 34 native prairie species were sown into all plots. We conducted annual censuses at peak biomass to quantify species composition and plant density by species within the experimental communities.

Important Findings

After 2 years, species richness was significantly higher in heterogeneous relative to homogeneous plots and this pattern was independent of total plant density. In the heterogeneous plots, 13 species had higher establishment in a specific patch type representing one of the three soil strata. Conversely, no species had greater establishment in the mixed stratum, which comprised the homogeneous plots, relative to the heterogeneous strata. These species sorting patterns suggest that fine-scale heterogeneity creates opportunities for plant establishment due to niche differences, which translates into increased plant diversity at the plot scale. Species richness was more strongly related to plant density among patches comprising homogenous plots-where fine-scale heterogeneity was minimized, but weak in heterogeneous plots. This pattern is consistent with the idea that richness-density relationships dominate when neutral processes are important but are weak when niche processes operate. Unlike many previous attempts, our results provide clear, experimental evidence that fine-scale soil heterogeneity increases species richness through species sorting during community assembly.

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