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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal Oecologia
Title of proceedings Oecologia

Abstract

While exerting no obvious function under “average” environmental conditions, the presence of certain plant specialists becomes crucial in the event of a complete failure of a community due to severe disturbance such as landslides. Plants capable of growing at erosion edges may act as potential edge-engineers by coping with unstable ground and stabilising the soil with their roots. We hypothesized that life conditions at erosion edges select for a particular set of specialists or species with specific traits, the identification of which was the aim of the study. Across 17 small-scale transects (0.40 x 1.60 m) from intact meadows to landslide edges (Ursern Valley, Swiss Alps, c. 1600 m a.s.l.), we quantified plant species abundance by point-intercept method and characterized growth conditions based on Landolt’s indicator values, leaf δ13C and volumetric soil moisture in the uppermost soil layers. We observed a clear change of plant species composition and relative abundance from the meadow to the edge, presumably induced by the 25% lower soil moisture and microclimatic exposure. Species richness at the edge was two-thirds of that in the meadow, but was positively correlated with species richness of the adjacent meadow. Species with “edge-preference” had either (1) rolled or festucoid leaves like Festuca spp., Avenella flexuosa and Nardus stricta, or (2) small, scleromorphic leaves like Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Calluna vulgaris and Thymus ssp.. Graminoids with rolled/festucoid leaves were found to be the most dominant edge-specialists. The grass Festuca valesiaca s.l. emerged as the most dominant plant species at the edge, having an 11 times higher cover at the edge than in the meadow. In this montane grassland, a single species contributes to the stabilisation of erosion edges and may be regarded as a potential keystone species for slope stability and regeneration after landslides even its role has not been established so far.
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