Aspects of the ecology of grass seedlings used for revegetation of degraded land.
As restoration ecology has matured as a science there has been increased interest in the relationship between species diversity and landscape health. Degraded landscapes tend to be resource poor, which limits species diversity as only species which are capable of growing and reproducing in these resource limiting environments can inhabit the area. Additionally, the established species are strong competitors for resources and will exclude, by way of inter-specific competition, weaker competitor species attempting to invade the degraded area. Several studies have demonstrated that with increased species diversity the overall productivity and functionality of the grassland increases. Seedling development and competitive interactions between grass seedlings has a significant impact on the final community structure and species diversity. It is for this reason that aspects of the ecology of grass seedlings were investigated. The growth and competitiveness of Chloris gayana, Cynodon dactylon, Digitaria eriantha, Eragrostis curvula and E. tef seedlings were determined under three environmental stimuli, namely nitrogen availability, light availability and exposure to plant-derived smoke (in the form of smoke-infused water). The primary conclusion from the competition experiments was that the species can be split into superior and inferior competitors at the seedling stage. Chloris gayana, E. curvula and E. tef were the most competitive seedlings as they had the largest negative effect on the growth of other species (high nitrogen Relative Interactive Index (RII) = -0.449, -0.203 and -0.379 respectively) and they were least affected by competition (high nitrogen RII = -0.251, -0.168 and -0.248 respectively). The calculated RII indicates the strength of the competitive interactions, the more negative the RII the stronger the competitive interaction. Nutrient availability had limited effect on the competitive hierarchy of the tested species. Chloris gayana seedlings, however, increased in competitiveness with an increase in available nutrients. In other words, there was a decreased negative response to competition in a high nutrient environment (high nitrogen RII -0.251, no nitrogen RII -0.605). When D. eriantha was grown under varying shade, nutrient and competition levels it was evident that the primary stress factor was light deficiency (p<0.001), and nutrient availability had no affect on seedling growth (p=0.069). Smoke-infused water had no consistent affect on the germination success or the seedling’s root and shoot vigour for the five grasses. These results indicate that the introduction of a “2-phase” or “multi-phase” restoration plan may be beneficial for the development of species diverse rehabilitated grasslands. Manipulating the time and space that the different species are planted, or the distribution of nutrient concentration over the area, may increase the survivorship of all the species that are introduced to a restoration site.
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