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Delayed response in a plant-pollinator system to experimental grassland fragmentation

Rusterholz, Hans-Peter, Baur, Bruno
Oecologia 2010 v.163 no.1 pp. 141-152
Bombus, Stachys, behavior change, biodiversity, field experimentation, flowers, foraging, genetic variation, grasslands, habitat fragmentation, habitats, long term experiments, mountains, plant reproduction, pollinators, seedlings, seeds, sexual reproduction
The fragmentation of natural habitat is considered to be a major threat to biodiversity. Decreasing habitat quality and quantity caused by fragmentation may lead to a disruption of plant-pollinator interactions and to a reduction in sexual reproduction in plant species. We conducted a 6-year field experiment to investigate the effects of small-scale fragmentation on plant-pollinator interactions and genetic diversity in the self-compatible Betonica officinalis. We examined the abundance and composition of pollinators, the foraging behaviour of bumblebees and the performance, outcrossing rate and genetic diversity of B. officinalis after 2 and 6 years in experimentally fragmented nutrient-poor, calcareous grassland in the northern Swiss Jura mountains. Fragments of different size (2.25 and 20.25 m²) were isolated by a 5-m-wide strip of frequently mown vegetation. Control plots of corresponding size were situated in adjacent undisturbed grassland. Experimental grassland fragmentation altered the composition of B. officinalis pollinators and reduced their flower visitation rate. Furthermore, the foraging behaviour of bumblebees was changed in the fragments. After 6 years of fragmentation seed weight was higher in fragments than in control plots. However, the densities of B. officinalis rosettes and inflorescences, plant height and inflorescence length were not affected by fragmentation. The outcrossing frequency of B. officinalis growing in fragments was reduced by 15% after 2 years and by 33% after 6 years of experimental fragmentation. This resulted in a significant reduction of the genetic diversity in seedlings emerging in fragments after 6 years. Our study shows that small-scale habitat fragmentation can disturb the interaction between B. officinalis and pollinators resulting in a reduced outcrossing frequency and genetic diversity in plants growing in fragments. However, the response to fragmentation was considerably delayed. This finding strengthens the claim for long-term field experiments with proper replications and controls to assess delayed effects of habitat fragmentation.