Biological invasions are driving environmental state changes on a global scale. Exotic plant species must be successful at passing several abiotic and biotic filters to establish and disrupt the native plant community assembly. Understanding where exotic plants are on a regional scale and being able to characterize how exotic plants are generally interacting with their environment is crucial information for exotic species management (chapter 1). In the western United States human-related activities are augmenting the spread of exotic plant species by increasing the ignitions of wildfire. Wildfire can lead to nutrient pulses through the removal of intact native communities and returning some mineral content into the soil. Exotic plant species that have traits that efficiently acquire nutrients accompanied by rapid growth rates may outcompete native plants. In chapters 2, 3, and 4 experimental fires demonstrated that the direct effect of fire may not be as critical as the potential indirect effects of fire such as altering the behavior of consumers (chapter 2) and reducing competition (chapters 3 and 4). In the Mojave desert, rodent consumers can have strong top-down effects on plant community assembly through foraging selection preferences. Life history traits such as seedling and seed size can lead to differential herbivory and positively benefit some plant species while inhibiting others (chapter 1) which could indirectly alter plant-plant interactions. Plant competition is a biotic filter than can determine establishment success or failure. Species that with rapid growth rates and plastic growth responses are likely to be able to capitalize on fluctuations in available resources. In the Great Basin, forecasts in climate change models predict that precipitation timing will lead to heavier fall rains and more rain than snow in the winter. Water availability is one of the main limiting factors in semi-arid and arid ecosystems where native plants have adaptive traits to maximize resource use. The interaction of wildfire and changes in climate, specifically timing of precipitation is critical to understand to be able to predict and protect against increasing wildfire frequency and severity. In chapter three, the responses by a key exotic annual grass, Bromus tectorum, and keystone native perennial shrub Artemisia tridentata subsp. wyomingensis, were positive for increased early fall precipitation but much more pronounced for B. tectorum. Exotic annual plants are able to respond to changes in timing of fall precipitation and have extreme growth which leads to superior competitive abilities through interference and priority effects (chapter 4). Native plants can compete with exotics but the magnitude of the effects are diminished compared to the negative interaction from exotics. Together these findings demonstrate that across several regions exotic annual grasses are capable of passing through abiotic filters and disrupting biotic interactions of the native plant community. This is likely to lead to increased spread of exotic annual species and may indicate potential and availability of fine fuel production supporting increases in size and frequency of wildfires in the western United States.



College and Department

Life Sciences; Plant and Wildlife Sciences



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invasion, community assembly, climate change, fire, exotic plants, competition, cheatgrass, Bromus, remote sensing, GIS, precipitation timing