Year of Publication

2011

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

Biology

First Advisor

Dr. Scott K. Gleeson

Abstract

Biodiversity rich regions worldwide face threats from various global change agents. This research quantifies environmental influences on vegetation, and the impacts of exotic woody plant invasion and anthropogenic nitrogen (N) deposition in a global biodiversity hotspot. The study was conducted in the montane grasslands of the Nilgiris, Western Ghats, and outlines potential management options for this region. Specifically, I examined (1) the role of environmental factors in influencing native plant distribution and ecosystem properties, (2) the status and impact of exotic shrub (Scotch broom, henceforth broom) invasion, (3) the role of disturbances in the success of broom, (4) the role of fire in restoring invaded grasslands, and (5) the impacts of terrestrial N loading on the grassland ecosystem. I used experiments and surveys to assess these. Distributions of several key species were explained by a few complex environmental gradients. In invaded-grasslands, broom populations consisted mainly of intermediate size and age classes, with no clear indication of population decline. Invasion negatively impacted plant community structure and drastically changed composition, favoring shade-tolerant and weedy species. However, invasion did not greatly alter ecosystem function. Fire successfully eliminated mature broom stands, but resulted in a short-term increase in broom seedling recruitment. At the end of 18 months, the fire effects on uninvaded-grasslands were not apparent, but there was no conclusive evidence of the formerly invaded patches attaining the composition of uninvaded-grasslands following burning. N fertilization strongly influenced soil N dynamics, and shoot N concentrations, but effects on aboveground production were weak. Surprisingly, N enrichment had positive effects on diversity in the short-term. It is clear that these grasslands need immediate management intervention to forestall degradation from invasion. Fire could be used to eliminate mature broom stands and deplete persistent seedbanks, which will facilitate colonization by shade-intolerant grassland plants. Active restoration should be mindful of environmental preferences of framework species. Long-term studies of the impacts of N deposition in the context of disturbances will help determine realistic critical thresholds and utilize disturbances to buffer the potential adverse effects of increasing N loading.

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