Do life history traits predict responses to defoliation in cooccurring prairie grasses?
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This study examines whether competition between the unpalatable grass Hilaria mutica and three co-occurring, palatable grasses in a Texan mixed prairie is altered by non-selective or selective defoliation. In this four-year study, plants were grown in monoculture or in combination with the unpalatable Hilaria in a replacement design. Under no defoliation, the unpalatable Hilaria had a lower growth potential than Bouteloua curtipendula and Nassella leucotricha that were of equal stature, and produced only as much as the shorter grass, Buchloe dactyloides. Bouteloua had the highest growth potential under no-defoliation and was defoliation tolerant, except when defoliated at ground level. Nassella was more productive than the unpalatable Hilaria, since the ability to grow earlier in the year enabled it to compete successfully with Hilaria. These results indicate that with adequate deferment Bouteloua and Nassella should compete successfully with Hilaria and Buchloe should be able to maintain itself in the presence of Hilaria. Under non-selective defoliation, Hilaria was able to compete successfully only with Buchloe. Hilaria was sensitive to defoliation, despite being rhizomatous, and competed less successfully with Buchloe after non-selective defoliation than it did when not defoliated. This indicates that the management practice of burning and stocking heavily with livestock until Hilaria is avoided, resulting in non-selective defoliation, will not cause Hilaria to be more competitive with the more palatable Bouteloua, Buchloe or Nassella. Hilaria was able to compete most successfully under selective defoliation when it was not defoliated. Under selective defoliation, by avoiding herbivory, Hilaria is able to compete strongly with at least Buchloe and Nassella. The reaction of Nassella and Buchloe to selective defoliation indicates that they may have been displaced by Hilaria in the past. In contrast, under the short-term and non-limiting growth conditions of this study, Bouteloua competed successfully with Hilaria even under selective defoliation. These results do not rule out the possibility that, through selective defoliation, Hilaria may have displaced other grasses including Bouteloua in the past.