The effects of habitat loss and fragmentation caused by woody plant encroachment on native plant diversity and on an invasive grass
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Habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and species invasions have been recognized as three of the leading threats to biodiversity. I examined the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation on native and invasive plants in central Texas. During the last century, the density and abundance of woody plants has been increasing in the savannas of eastern Edwards Plateau. This process, known as woody plant encroachment, not only reduces the amount of open herbaceous habitat but also fragments that habitat creating smaller and more isolated patches. In three studies, I investigated the consequences of this habitat loss and fragmentation for plants which do not occur under the cover of woody plants including native grasses and forbs and the invasive Eurasian bunchgrass, Bothriochloa ischaemum (King Ranch Bluestem). In the first study, I show that woody plant encroachment reduces native herbaceous species richness (the number of species in a given area). Using a collection of historical aerial photographs, I demonstrate that current native herbaceous species richness was most strongly related to recent habitat amount, but to the degree of habitat fragmentation at least 50 years ago. In a second study, I show that the presence of B. ischaemum was negatively related to the degree of fragmentation in the surrounding landscape. Finally, I found that B. ischaemum had higher rates of germination and growth in experimental plots where the species commonly lost with woody plant encroachment were removed than in unmanipulated control plots. Together, this work suggests that woody plant encroachment is directly slowing the spread of an invasive species while indirectly facilitating its establishment.