Shrubs as Ecosystem Engineers in a Coastal Dune: Influences on Plant Populations, Communities and Ecosystems

Question: How do two shrubs with contrasting life history characteristics influence abundance of dominant plant taxa, species richness and aboveground biomass of grasses and forbs, litter accumulation, nitrogen pools and mineralization rates? How are these shrubs – and thus their effects on populations, communities and ecosystems – distributed spatially across the landscape? Location: Coastal hind-dune system, Bodega Head, northern California. Methods: In each of 4 years, we compared vegetation, leaf litter and soil nitrogen under canopies of two native shrubs – Ericameria ericoides and the nitrogen-fixing Lupinus chamissonis – with those in adjacent open dunes. Results: At the population level, density and cover of the native forb Claytonia perfoliata and the exotic grass Bromus diandrus were higher under shrubs than in shrub-free areas, whereas they were lower under shrubs for the exotic grass Vulpia bromoides. In contrast, cover of three native moss species was highest under Ericameria and equally low under Lupinus and shrub-free areas. At community level, species richness and aboveground biomass of herbaceous dicots was lower beneath shrubs, whereas no pattern emerged for grasses. At ecosystem level, areas beneath shrubs accumulated more leaf litter and had larger pools of soil ammonium and nitrate. Rates of nitrate mineralization were higher under Lupinus, followed by Ericameria and then open dune. At landscape level, the two shrubs – and their distinctive vegetation and soils – frequently had uniform spatial distributions, and the distance separating neighbouring shrubs increased as their combined sizes increased. Conclusions: Collectively, these data suggest that both shrubs serve as ecosystem engineers in this coastal dune, having influences at multiple levels of biological organization. Our data also suggest that intraspecific competition influenced the spatial distributions of these shrubs and thus altered the distribution of their effects throughout the landscape.