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Complexity and composition of pasture swards affect plant productivity and soil organisms

McElroy, M.S., Papadopoulos, Y.A., Adl, M.S. (2012). Complexity and composition of pasture swards affect plant productivity and soil organisms, 92(4), 687-697.


The relationships between ecosystem diversity, productivity, and stability is a central theme in current ecological research; the links between above-ground and below-ground ecosystems, as well as their effects on ecosystem services, are becoming more understood. While plant communities differ in primary productivity, and in the communities of soil organisms they support, it is unclear whether these differences are attributable mainly to plant community diversity or to the dominant plant species. This study evaluated the effect of these two factors on plant productivity, and abundance of soil microorganisms and functional diversity, in an establishing pasture using sward complexity (plant species present) and sward composition (identity of species) as treatments in a design using the step-wise addition of grass species. While sward complexity affected plant productivity, showing higher productivity in plots of higher diversity, abundance and functional diversity of soil organism groups were generally not consistently affected by sward complexity or composition. Sward composition did influence soil community composition; there was a close correlation between microbial catabolic activity and sward composition. This study shows that grassland plants have a limited effect on the size and diversity of soil communities while they are being established. This result may have consequences for soil ecosystem services.

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