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Shrub expansion is occurring in grasslands globally and may be impacted by the balance of competition and facilitation with existing grasses. Along the mid‐Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the native shrub Morella cerifera (wax myrtle) is rapidly expanding and displacing other native coastal species. Recent research suggests that much of this expansion is due to warming winter temperatures, as temperatures below −15°C kill M. cerifera. The objective of this project was to understand the importance of species interactions with grasses on the growth and physiology of M. cerifera at the seedling life stage through both field and laboratory experiments. In the field, grasses were removed around seedlings and microclimate and shrub physiology and growth were measured. Seeds and seedlings were experimentally frozen to measure the freeze tolerance at both life stages. We found that grasses provided ~1.3°C insulation to shrubs during winter. A freezing threshold for M. cerifera seedlings was experimentally found between −6°C and −11°C, but seeds remained viable after being frozen to the coldest ecologically relevant temperatures. Seedlings competed for light with grasses during warm months and grew more where grasses were clipped, revealing a trade‐off between winter insulation and summer light competition. Morella cerifera exhibits ecosystem engineering at the seedling stage by significantly reducing summer maximum temperatures. When seedlings are very young (less than one year), grasses appear to improve germination and seedling survival. These phenomena enable rapid expansion of M. cerifera across the landscape and likely inform shrub expansion mechanisms in other systems. Although seedlings are small and relatively vulnerable, this life stage appears to have significant implications for ecosystem trajectory in grasslands undergoing shrub encroachment.
© 2020 The Authors. This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
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VCU Biology Publications
Originally published at https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.2995.
Funded in part by the VCU Libraries Open Access Publishing Fund.