Systematic reduction of natural enemies and competition across variable precipitation approximates buffelgrass invasiveness (Cenchrus ciliaris) in its native range

Rhodes, Aaron C.; Plowes, Robert M.; Bowman, Elizabeth A.; Gaitho, Aimee; Ng'iru, Ivy ORCID:; Martins, Dino J.; Gilbert, Lawrence E.. 2024 Systematic reduction of natural enemies and competition across variable precipitation approximates buffelgrass invasiveness (Cenchrus ciliaris) in its native range. Ecology and Evolution, 14 (5), e11350. 18, pp.

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Invasive grasses cause devastating losses to biodiversity and ecosystem function directly and indirectly by altering ecosystem processes. Escape from natural enemies, plant–plant competition, and variable resource availability provide frameworks for understanding invasion. However, we lack a clear understanding of how natural stressors interact in their native range to regulate invasiveness. In this study, we reduced diverse guilds of natural enemies and plant competitors of the highly invasive buffelgrass across a precipitation gradient throughout major climatic shifts in Laikipia, Kenya. To do this, we used a long-term ungulate exclosure experiment design across a precipitation gradient with nested treatments that (1) reduced plant competition through clipping, (2) reduced insects through systemic insecticide, and (3) reduced fungal associates through fungicide application. Additionally, we measured the interaction of ungulates on two stem-boring insect species feeding on buffelgrass. Finally, we measured a multiyear smut fungus outbreak. Our findings suggest that buffelgrass exhibits invasive qualities when released from a diverse group of natural stressors in its native range. We show natural enemies interact with precipitation to alter buffelgrass productivity patterns. In addition, interspecific plant competition decreased the basal area of buffelgrass, suggesting that biotic resistance mediates buffelgrass dominance in the home range. Surprisingly, systemic insecticides and fungicides did not impact buffelgrass production or reproduction, perhaps because other guilds filled the niche space in these highly diverse systems. For example, in the absence of ungulates, we showed an increase in host-specific stem-galling insects, where these insects compensated for reduced ungulate use. Finally, we documented a smut outbreak in 2020 and 2021, corresponding to highly variable precipitation patterns caused by a shifting Indian Ocean Dipole. In conclusion, we observed how reducing natural enemies and competitors and certain interactions increased properties related to buffelgrass invasiveness.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
UKCEH and CEH Sections/Science Areas: Biodiversity (Science Area 2017-)
ISSN: 2045-7758
Additional Information. Not used in RCUK Gateway to Research.: Open Access paper - full text available via Official URL link.
Additional Keywords: insect herbivory, invasiveness, natural enemies, pathogens, plant competition, ungulate herbivory
NORA Subject Terms: Ecology and Environment
Date made live: 13 May 2024 09:23 +0 (UTC)

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