Date of Award
Master of Science
Wide-scale conversion of tallgrass prairie to row-crop agriculture has spurred restoration of this endangered ecosystem. At the onset of restoration, a matrix of native plant species is sown into former crop field and includes warm-season (C4) grasses, cool-season (C3) grasses, legumes, and a large variety of herbaceous forbs. Increased demand for native seed due to a greater number of areas targeted for restoration has increased use of C4 grass cultivars by restoration practitioners. Cultivars are selectively bred to display traits such as increased productivity and digestibility, thus highlighting their original use in rangelands of the Great Plains. C4 grasses have a mutualistic relationship with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF). In remnant tallgrass prairie, AMF can increase C4 plant uptake of belowground resources (e.g., water, soil P) by increasing root surface area. It is unknown if AMF colonization varies between seed source (cultivar or non-cultivar) of C4 grasses used in restoration and if this further affects plant biomass. Intraspecific variation in AMF colonization between two dominant warm-season prairie grasses was tested in two established prairie restoration experiments, both having plots seeded with either C4 cultivars or non-cultivars. To test for effects of seed source and AMF colonization on plant biomass, a greenhouse experiment was designed using two source populations (cultivar and non-cultivar) of two species (Andropogon gerardii Vitman and Sorghastrum nutans (L.) Nash) and soil collected at each field restoration (Kansas and Illinois). To suppress activity and colonization of AMF, a fungicide (Allban Flo: Thiophanate Methyl) was applied to half of the containers. Warm-season (C4) grass cultivars had greater or equivalent biomass production than non-cultivars at the onset of field restoration and also in the greenhouse. Furthermore, cultivars generally had less or equivalent root colonization by AMF and dependence on fungicide-free soil was greater in cultivars to retain increased accrual of biomass. It was, however, not possible to determine the role of AMF in plant biomass production as fungicide did not successfully reduce AMF root colonization in cultivars or non-cultivars, with one exception. It is critical that an effective AMF-suppression treatment be established in these types of studies. Future experiments should validate supposed effectiveness of the newly-recommended fungicide (Topsin-M) in population sources of warm-season prairie grasses and also apply it to the soil at time of planting in greenhouse studies. In the field sites, adjacent soil cultivation may have contributed to greater AMF biomass more so than surrounding remnant prairie. Future research identifying species composition of AMF at these sites is necessary to clarify differences in biomass. Despite greater plant biomass in cultivars, soil nutrient availability remained equivalent between source populations in general. Available N and P were not less in soils grown with cultivars, however soil inorganic N was inversely related to root length colonized by AMF, suggesting a role of AMF in N transfer from soil to plant. Soil P was not different between source populations likely due to legacy effects of agricultural fertilization, thus limiting a well known benefit of AMF symbiosis, at least at the onset of restoration. Non-target effects of fungicide application were observed (e.g., changes in available N) and effectiveness of AMF suppression was questionable. Fungicide lowered pH and increased N availability in soil as indicated by main effects of application and a positive relationship between pH and inorganic N across species. Fungicide application either 1) decreased N uptake by soil microorganisms (possibly including AMF) or 2) increased competition for adsorption sites and/or solubility of total inorganic N as pH changed, thus making this nutrient more available in the soil solution. Future examination quantifying indirect effects of fungicide application on soil chemistry should also be considered to better elucidate role of AMF in plant growth and soil nutrient availability between cultivars and non-cultivars of warm-season grasses used in tallgrass prairie restoration.
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