Priority effects: how the order of arrival of an invasive grass, Bromus tectorum, alters productivity and plant community structure when grown with native grass species.
Theories and models attempt to explain how and why particular plant species grow together at particular sites or why invasive exotic species dominate plant communities. As local climates change and human-use degrades and disturbs ecosystems, a better understanding of how plant communities assemble is pertinent, particularly when restoring grassland ecosystems that are frequently disturbed. One such community assembly theory is priority effects, which suggests that arrival order of species into a community alters plant-plant interactions and community assembly. Theoretically, priority effects can have lasting effects on ecosystems and will likely be altered as the risk of invasion by exotic species increases. It is difficult to predict how and when priority effects occur, as experimental reconstruction of arrival order is often difficult in adequate detail. As a result, limited experimental studies have explored priority effects on plant community assembly and plant invasions. To determine if and how priority effects affect the success of invasive species, we conducted a greenhouse study exploring how the arrival order of an invasive grass, Bromus tectorum, affects productivity and community composition when grown with native grasses. We found evidence for priority effects, as productivity was positively related to dominance of B. tectorum and was greater the earlier B. tectorum arrived. This suggests that priority effects could be important for plant communities as the early arrival of an invasive species drastically impacted the productivity and biodiversity of our system at the early establishment stages of plant community development.