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Functional trait expression of grassland species shift with short- and long-term nutrient additions

Kimberly J. La Pierre, Melinda D. Smith
Humans are altering nutrient availability worldwide, likely affecting plant trait expression, with consequences for community composition and ecosystem function. Here, we examined the responses of plant species dominant under ambient nutrient conditions (baseline species) versus those that become dominant under increased nutrient conditions (enriched species) in a tallgrass prairie ecosystem. The expression of 8 functional traits was quantified for 3 baseline and 3 enriched species within one short-term and one long-term nutrient addition experiment. We found that enriched species occupied a trait space characterized by traits that generally correspond with faster growth rates than baseline species. Additionally, the enriched species shifted in their trait expression relative to the control more than the baseline species with nutrient additions, particularly within the long-term experiment. The trait space shifts of individual species with nutrient additions scaled up to affect community aggregate trait values within both experiments. However, traits that responded to nutrient additions at the community level were not strong predictors of aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) within the short-term experiment. In contrast, in the long-term experiment, one response trait (community aggregate height) strongly correlated with variation in ANPP with nutrient additions. The link between plant functional traits and community and ecosystem responses to chronic nutrient additions shown here will provide important insight into key mechanisms driving grassland responses to global change.