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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Ecological Impacts of Nitrogen Deposition, Drought and Nonnative Plant Invasion on Coastal Sage Scrub of the Santa Monica Mountains

  • Author(s): Valliere, Justin Michael
  • Advisor(s): Allen, Edith B
  • et al.

Multiple drivers of global environmental change increasingly threaten native ecosystems, including atmospheric pollution and resulting changes in climate and nutrient cycling, and the globalization of species. These factors may also have complex and interactive ecological effects. Nitrogen (N) deposition, the input of reactive N from the atmosphere to the earth’s surface, is increasing dramatically worldwide due to anthropogenic air pollution, with the potential to negatively impact terrestrial plant diversity. Elevated N deposition may also interact with other drivers of environmental change, for example by promoting the invasion of nonnative plant species, or increasing plant susceptibility to drought or other secondary stressors. Perhaps nowhere in the U.S. is this of more immediate environmental concern than in southern California, which is a global hotspot of biodiversity and one of the most air-polluted and populous parts of the country. High levels of N deposition have been implicated in the widespread conversion of coastal sage scrub (CSS) to annual grasslands dominated by nonnative grasses and forbs. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area of southern California protects a substantial area of remaining CSS, but due to the park’s proximity to the City of Los Angeles, stands of CSS nearest urban areas may be subject to high levels of N deposition. The state of California is also in the midst of a record-breaking drought, beginning in 2011, and this may exacerbate the negative impacts of N deposition and nonnative plant species. The objective of this work is to explore the effects of N deposition, drought and nonnative plant invasion on CSS of the Santa Monica Mountains at multiple ecologically relevant scales. I explored relationships of atmospheric N pollution and N deposition with native plant richness and cover of nonnative species at the landscape level, finding N deposition reduces richness of native herbaceous species and is associated with higher nonnative cover. I also investigated the impact of multiple realistic levels of N addition on CSS in a field fertilization experiment on the low end of the N deposition gradient during a period that coincided with the California drought. Through this experiment, I demonstrated increased N availability may reduce water-use efficiency and drought tolerance of native shrubs, resulting in increased dieback, while concomitantly favoring nonnative annual species. Finally, I explored the role of the soil microbial community in mediating impacts of these factors on native and nonnative plant species, finding that N-impacted soil communities may provide less protection against drought in native shrub seedlings and increase growth of invasive plant species. Collectively, these results illustrate the significant ecological threat of increased N deposition on the severely threated CSS of southern California, and potential interactions with other drivers of global change such as extreme drought, and nonnative plant invasion.

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