Disturbance Alters the Phylogenetic Composition and Structure of Plant Communities in an Old Field System

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
PLoS ONE (Impact Factor: 3.53). 09/2009; 4(9):e7071. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007071
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT The changes in phylogenetic composition and structure of communities during succession following disturbance can give us insights into the forces that are shaping communities over time. In abandoned agricultural fields, community composition changes rapidly when a field is plowed, and is thought to reflect a relaxation of competition due to the elimination of dominant species which take time to re-establish. Competition can drive phylogenetic overdispersion, due to phylogenetic conservation of 'niche' traits that allow species to partition resources. Therefore, undisturbed old field communities should exhibit higher phylogenetic dispersion than recently disturbed systems, which should be relatively 'clustered' with respect to phylogenetic relationships. Several measures of phylogenetic structure between plant communities were measured in recently plowed areas and nearby 'undisturbed' sites. There was no difference in the absolute values of these measures between disturbed and 'undisturbed' sites. However, there was a difference in the 'expected' phylogenetic structure between habitats, leading to significantly lower than expected phylogenetic diversity in disturbed plots, and no difference from random expectation in 'undisturbed' plots. This suggests that plant species characteristic of each habitat are fairly evenly distributed on the shared species pool phylogeny, but that once the initial sorting of species into the two habitat types has occurred, the processes operating on them affect each habitat differently. These results were consistent with an analysis of correlation between phylogenetic distance and co-occurrence indices of species pairs in the two habitat types. This study supports the notion that disturbed plots are more clustered than expected, rather than 'undisturbed' plots being more overdispersed, suggesting that disturbed plant communities are being more strongly influenced by environmental filtering of conserved niche traits.

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