Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Science


Plant Biology

First Advisor

Baer, Sara


Restoration of resilient plant communities in response to environmental degradation is a critical task, and a changing climate necessitates the introduction of plant communities adapted to anticipated future conditions. Ecotypes of dominant species can affect associated organisms as well as ecosystem function. The extent of ecotypic variation in dominant tallgrass prairie species and the consequences of this variation for ecosystem functioning were studied by manipulating two potential drivers of plant community dynamics: climate and the soil microbial community. Climate was manipulated indirectly through the use of reciprocal restorations across a rainfall gradient where regional sources of dominant grasses Andropogon gerardii and Sorghastrum nutans were seeded with 8 other native species that occur in tallgrass prairie. Four dominant grass sources (originating from central Kansas [CKS], eastern Kansas [EKS], southern Illinois [SIL], or a mixture of these) were reciprocally planted within four sites that occurred across a precipitation gradient in western KS (Colby, KS), CKS (Hays, KS), EKS (Manhattan, KS) and SIL (Carbondale, IL). The three grass sources and mixture of sources were sown into plots according to a randomized complete block design at each sites (n=16, 4 plots / block at each site). Aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) was measured at the end of the 2010 and 2011 growing season at each site. In 2010, total ANPP declined from western to eastern Kansas, but increased across the geographic gradient in 2011. The dominant grasses did not comprise the majority of community ANPP in WKS, CKS or SIL in either year but did contribute most to total ANPP at the EKS site in 2011. In 2010, volunteer forbs comprised the largest proportion of ANPP in WKS, whereas and in both years planted forbs comprised the largest proportion of ANPP in SIL. Ecotypic variation in ANPP of A. gerardii was not evident, but Sorghastrum nutans ANPP exhibited a site by source effect in 2010 that did not suggest a home site advantage. Variation in the competitive environment at each site may have masked ecotypic variation during community assembly. Further, ANPP responses suggest that grasslands in early stages of establishment may respond more stochastically to climatic variation than established grasslands. Longer term studies will clarify whether ecotypes of dominant prairie grasses affect ecosystem function or community trajectories differently during restoration. Ecotypes of dominant species may support different soil microflora, potentially resulting in plant-soil feedback. A second experiment tested for local adaptation of prairie plant assemblages to their soil microbial community. Native plant assemblages from Kansas and Illinois were tested for local adaptation to their `home' soil by reciprocally crossing soil and plant source in a greenhouse experiment. Seeds and soil were obtained from two remnant prairies, one in eastern Kansas and one in central Illinois, with similar species composition but differing climate. Seeds of four species (Andropogon gerardii, Elymus canadensis, Lespedeza capitata, Oligoneuron rigidum) common to both locations were collected, germinated, and transferred to pots to create 4-species assemblages from each region. Non-prairie (NP) soil from the edge of an Illinois agricultural field was also included as an inoculum treatment to increase relevance to restoration. Kansas and Illinois plant assemblages were subjected to a fully factorial combination of soil inocula [with associated microbial communities] (3 sources: KS, IL, NP) and soil sterilization treatment (sterilized or live). Plants were harvested after 20 weeks and soil was analyzed for microbial composition using phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) markers. Soil sources had different nutrient concentrations and sterilization resulted in a flush of NH4+, which complicated detection of soil microbial effects. However, plant sources did exhibit variation in productivity responses to soil sources, with Kansas plants more responsive to live soil sources than Illinois plants. Despite confounding variation in soil fertility, soil inoculation was successful at manipulating soil microbial communities, and plant sources responded differently to soil sources. Consideration of feedback between soil and plants may be a missing link in steering restoration trajectories.




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