Declining plant species richness in the tussock grasslands of Canterbury and Otago, South Island, New Zealand

R.P. Duncan, R.J. Webster, C.A. Jensen

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    We studied vegetation change on 142 permanently marked transects spread throughout tussock grasslands of Otago and Canterbury, in areas subject to both pastoral and conservation management. The transects were established between 1982 and 1986 and remeasured between 1993 and 1999, providing a record of vegetation change at each site over an interval varying from 10 to 15 years. Each transect consisted of 50 quadrats, each 0.25m2, in which the presence of all vascular plant species had been recorded. For each transect, we calculated the change between measurements in the mean number of species recorded per quadrat, and the change in the total number of species recorded per transect. Averaged across all transects, there was a significant decline in species richness between measurements at both the quadrat and transect scales. Small herbs (those ≤ 2 cm tall, excluding Hieracium species) showed the greatest decline. On average, more than one quarter of the small herb species present in a quadrat at the first measurement had disappeared within 10 years. Larger herbs, ferns, rushes, sedges and grasses (excluding Chionochloa species) also declined significantly in species richness, reflecting declines in the abundance of species in these groups. Woody species richness remained constant, while species in the genera Chionochloa and Hieracium increased significantly in mean quadrat species richness, reflecting increases in the abundance of these species along transects. The rate of decline in mean quadrat species richness was unrelated to changes in the abundance of either Chionochloa or Hieracium species, or to an overall increase in total vegetation cover on transects. The rate of decline in species richness was also unrelated to the level of grazing or burning between measurements. However, the rate of decline in species richness was greater at lower elevation, on schist rock and on yellow-brown and yellow-grey soils. Our results suggest that a major compositional change is occurring in these grasslands at a rate that is independent of local variation in management and independent of the widespread invasion of these grasslands by Hieracium species.
    Original languageUndefined
    Pages (from-to)35-47
    Number of pages13
    JournalNew Zealand Journal of Ecology
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2001

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