How spatial heterogeneity of cover affects patterns of shrub encroachment into mesic grasslands
Dale, Mark R. T.
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We used a multi-method approach to analyze the spatial patterns of shrubs and cover types (plant species, litter or bare soil) in grassland-shrubland ecotones. This approach allows us to assess how fine-scale spatial heterogeneity of cover types affects the patterns of Cytisus balansae shrub encroachment into mesic mountain grasslands (Catalan Pyrenees, Spain). Spatial patterns and the spatial associations between juvenile shrubs and different cover types were assessed in mesic grasslands dominated by species with different palatabilities (palatable grass Festuca nigrescens and unpalatable grass Festuca eskia). A new index, called RISES (“Relative Index of Shrub Encroachment Susceptibility”), was proposed to calculate the chances of shrub encroachment into a given grassland, combining the magnitude of the spatial associations and the surface area for each cover type. Overall, juveniles showed positive associations with palatable F. nigrescens and negative associations with unpalatable F. eskia, although these associations shifted with shrub development stage. In F. eskia grasslands, bare soil showed a low scale of pattern and positive associations with juveniles. Although the highest RISES values were found in F. nigrescens plots, the number of juvenile Cytisus was similar in both types of grasslands. However, F. nigrescens grasslands showed the greatest number of juveniles in early development stage (i.e. height<10 cm) whereas F. eskia grasslands showed the greatest number of juveniles in late development stages (i.e. height>30 cm). We concluded that in F. eskia grasslands, where establishment may be constrained by the dominant cover type, the low scale of pattern on bare soil may result in higher chances of shrub establishment and survival. In contrast, although grasslands dominated by the palatable F. nigrescens may be more susceptible to shrub establishment; current grazing rates may reduce juvenile survival.