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Research article2017Peer reviewedOpen access

Major shifts in species' relative abundance in grassland mixtures alongside positive effects of species diversity in yield: a continental-scale experiment

Brophy, Caroline; Finn, John A.; Luscher, Andreas; Suter, Matthias; Kirwan, Laura; Sebastia, Maria-Teresa; Helgadottir, Aslaug; Baadshaug, Ole H.; Belanger, Gilles; Black, Alistair; Collins, Rosemary P.; Cop, Jure; Dalmannsdottir, Sigridur; Delgado, Ignacio; Elgersma, Anjo; Fothergill, Michael; Frankow-Lindberg, Bodil E.; Ghesquiere, An; Golinska, Barbara; Golinski, Piotr;
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1. Increased species diversity promotes ecosystem function; however, the dynamics of multi-species grassland systems over time and their role in sustaining higher yields generated by increased diversity are still poorly understood. We investigated the development of species' relative abundances in grassland mixtures over 3 years to identify drivers of diversity change and their links to yield diversity effects.2. A continental-scale field experiment was conducted at 31 sites using 11 different four-species mixtures each sown at two seed abundances. The four species consisted of two grasses and two legumes, of which one was fast establishing and the other temporally persistent. We modelled the dynamics of the four-species mixtures, and tested associations with diversity effects on yield.3. We found that species' dynamics were primarily driven by differences in the relative growth rates (RGRs) of competing species, and secondarily by density dependence and climate. The temporally persistent grass species typically had the highest RGRs and hence became dominant over time. Density dependence sometimes induced stabilising processes on the dominant species and inhibited shifts to monoculture. Legumes persisted at most sites at low or medium abundances and persistence was improved at sites with higher annual minimum temperature.4. Significant diversity effects were present at the majority of sites in all years and the strength of diversity effects was improved with higher legume abundance in the previous year. Observed diversity effects, when legumes had declined, may be due to (i) important effects of legumes even at low abundance, (ii) interaction between the two grass species or (iii) a store of N because of previous presence of legumes.5. Synthesis. Alongside major compositional changes driven by RGR differences, diversity effects were observed at most sites, albeit at reduced strength as legumes declined. This evidence strongly supports the sowing of multi-species mixtures that include legumes over the long-standing practice of sowing grass monocultures. Careful and strategic selection of the identity of the species used in mixtures is suggested to facilitate the maintenance of species diversity and especially persistence of legumes over time, and to preserve the strength of yield increases associated with diversity.


climate; determinants of plant community diversity and structure; diversity effects; grasses; legumes; multi-species communities; relative growth rate; species composition; stabilising processes; sward dynamics

Published in

Journal of Ecology
2017, Volume: 105, number: 5, pages: 1210-1222
Publisher: WILEY

      SLU Authors

      • Gustavsson, Anne-Maj

        • Department of Agricultural Research for Northern Sweden, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

      Sustainable Development Goals

      SDG13 Climate action

      UKÄ Subject classification

      Agricultural Science

      Publication identifier


      Permanent link to this page (URI)