Seed Production and Seedling Fitness Are Uncoupled from Maternal Plant Productivity in Three Aridland Bunchgrasses

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Rangeland Ecology & Management

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Maintaining self-sustaining populations of desired plants is fundamental to rangeland management, and understanding the relationships among plant growth, seed production, and seedling recruitment is critical to these efforts. Our objective was to evaluate how changes in maternal plant soil resource environment influences maternal plant biomass and seed production and seedling fitness in three widespread perennial bunchgrass species (Elymus elymoides [Raf.] Sezey, bottlebrush squirreltail; Festuca idahoensis Elmer, Idaho fescue; and Pseudoroegneria spicata [Pursh] A. Löve, bluebunch wheatgrass). We supplied water and nutrients to adult plants growing in the field and measured their productivity and fecundity. Then, in the laboratory, growth chamber, and field we assessed effects of the maternal water and nutrient additions on offspring performance. Across the three study species, vegetative traits were more plastic than reproductive traits, with resource addition measurably increasing plant growth but not seed production. Germination was high in both the laboratory and field across treatments, although seeds from irrigated maternal plants tended to have higher field germination. Seedling relative growth rate, leaf mass ratio, and relative root elongation rate (RRER) were highly variable, although RRER tended to be higher in seedlings derived from irrigated maternal plants. In the field, seedling survivorship was low across all species, but survivorship doubled in seedlings produced by P. spicata plants that received additional water through the growing season. Overall, our results suggest that biomass production and fecundity responses to nutrients are decoupled in the species and environment tested but maternal effects can have significant, although variable, impacts in some grassland species. As a result, biomass responses to natural and anthropogenic changes in resource availability may not be strong predictors of how altered resource supply may ultimately influence plant community dynamics in aridland systems.