Stress responses of native and exotic grasses in a Neotropical savanna predict impacts of global change on invasion spread.
Communities subject to stress, including those with low invasibility, may be dominated by exotic generalist species. African grasses are aggressive invasive species in Neotropical savannas, where their response to abiotic stress remains unknown. We assessed the role of waterlogging and canopy closure on the presence, abundance and reproductive tillering of African and native grasses in a Neotropical savanna in southeastern Brazil. We obtained abundance and reproductive tillering data of exotic (Melinis minutiflora, Melinis repens and Urochloa decumbens) and common native grasses in 20 sites. We also determined the groundwater depth, soil surface water potential and canopy cover at these sites. The grass species generally had a low frequency and performed poorly where soil remained waterlogged throughout the year, except for two native species. Most native species were exclusive to either well-drained savannas or better drained wet grasslands. However, two species (Loudetiopsis chrysothrix and Trachypogon spicatus) occurred in both vegetation types. Two exotic species (M. minutiflora and M. repens) were less common but demonstrated reasonable performance in wet grasslands, possibly due to their root system plasticity. Furthermore, U. decumbens had a lower occurrence, density and reproductive tillering at these sites, but was successful at sites where the groundwater level was slightly deeper. Although the favourable water regime in the savannas increases their invasibility in general, resistance to invasion by African grasses may be greater at microsites with high canopy closure, where these species showed lower performance and did not affect the abundance of co-occurring native grasses. In summary, the Brazilian savanna becomes more susceptible to the spread of African grasses when disturbances decrease canopy closure or lower rainfall associated with climate change reduces the average groundwater depth and consequently releases invasive species from soil waterlogging in grasslands.