Exotic cheatgrass and loss of soil biota decrease the performance of a native grass

Suzanne M. Owen, Carolyn Hull Sieg, Nancy Collins Johnson, Catherine A. Gehring

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Soil disturbances can alter microbial communities including arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi, which may in turn, affect plant community structure and the abundance of exotic species. We hypothesized that altered soil microbial populations owing to disturbance would contribute to invasion by cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), an exotic annual grass, at the expense of the native perennial grass, squirreltail (Elymus elymoides). Using a greenhouse experiment, we compared the responses of conspecific and heterospecific pairs of cheatgrass and squirreltail inoculated with soil (including live AM spores and other organisms) collected from fuel treatments with high, intermediate and no disturbance (pile burns, mastication, and intact woodlands) and a sterile control. Cheatgrass growth was unaffected by type of soil inoculum, whereas squirreltail growth, reproduction and nutrient uptake were higher in plants inoculated with soil from mastication and undisturbed treatments compared to pile burns and sterile controls. Squirreltail shoot biomass was positively correlated with AM colonization when inoculated with mastication and undisturbed soils, but not when inoculated with pile burn soils. In contrast, cheatgrass shoot biomass was negatively correlated with AM colonization, but this effect was less pronounced with pile burn inoculum. Cheatgrass had higher foliar N and P when grown with squirreltail compared to a conspecific, while squirreltail had lower foliar P, AM colonization and flower production when grown with cheatgrass. These results indicate that changes in AM communities resulting from high disturbance may favor exotic plant species that do not depend on mycorrhizal fungi, over native species that depend on particular taxa of AM fungi for growth and reproduction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2503-2517
Number of pages15
JournalBiological Invasions
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2013


  • Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi
  • Bromus tectorum
  • Elymus elymoides
  • Invasion
  • Phosphorus
  • Pinyon-Juniper woodlands

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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