Australian Journal of Botany Australian Journal of Botany Society
Southern hemisphere botanical ecosystems
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Subtropical native grasslands may not require fire, mowing or grazing to maintain native-plant diversity

Roderick J. Fensham A B D , Donald W. Butler A , Boris Laffineur A B , Harry J. MacDermott A B , John W. Morgan C and Jennifer L. Silcock A B
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Queensland Herbarium, Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation, Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Mt Coot-tha Road, Toowong, Qld 4066, Australia.

B School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Qld 4072, Australia.

C Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Vic. 3083, Australia.

D Corresponding author. Email: rod.fensham@qld.gov.au

Australian Journal of Botany 65(2) 95-102 https://doi.org/10.1071/BT16170
Submitted: 24 August 2016  Accepted: 23 December 2016   Published: 30 January 2017

Abstract

The rarity of native grasslands in agricultural districts heightens the requirement for optimal management to maintain diversity. Previous studies have suggested that disturbance is required to maintain species diversity in temperate Australian grasslands, but grasslands in semiarid environments do not have the same disturbance requirement. The current study examines the short-term responses to disturbance of subtropical grassland of the Darling Downs, south-eastern Queensland. We also compare temperate and subtropical grasslands in terms of biomass and rainfall. A field experiment was established with treatments, including burning in 2013, burning in 2014, burning in both years, mowing in both years, mowing and raking in both years, and an undisturbed control. Treatments were replicated at each of seven sampling stations in similar environments. The initial sampling after 2013 followed a wet summer and the final sampling was in 2015 after a dry summer. Non-metric multi-dimensional scaling showed that environmental differences, including silt content, soil pH, waterlogging and rainfall history, had more effect on the variation in species composition than did the treatments. The treatments engendered no significant response in species diversity. Of 51 widespread species, only four had a significant change in abundance in response to treatment. Herbaceous biomass was higher in temperate than subtropical grassland after a dry period. The grassland sward may be more open in the subtropics than in temperate grassland because of higher decomposition rates. A comparison of rainfall distribution between subtropical grassland and temperate grassland indicated that droughts are much more frequent in the former environments. These occasional droughts may provide a stress that reduces perennial grass cover, supplanting the requirement for grazing or fire to maintain plant diversity in grasslands. The management of grassland remnants in the subtropics, therefore, seems straightforward because there is little response in species richness or composition to disturbance. However, soil disturbance should be avoided to ensure that exotic species do not proliferate.

Additional keywords: Australia, disturbance, drought, management.


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