Nothing lasts forever: Dominant species decline under rapid environmental change in global grasslands

Research output: Journal contributionsJournal articlesResearchpeer-review


  • Peter A. Wilfahrt
  • Eric W. Seabloom
  • Jonathan D. Bakker
  • Lori Biederman
  • Miguel N. Bugalho
  • Marc W. Cadotte
  • Maria C. Caldeira
  • Jane A. Catford
  • Qingqing Chen
  • Ian Donohue
  • Anne Ebeling
  • Nico Eisenhauer
  • Robert W. Heckman
  • Anke Jentsch
  • Sally E. Koerner
  • Kimberly J. Komatsu
  • Ramesh Laungani
  • Andrew MacDougall
  • Jason P. Martina
  • Holly Martinson
  • Joslin L. Moore
  • Yujie Niu
  • Timothy Ohlert
  • Harry Olde Venterink
  • Devyn Orr
  • Pablo Peri
  • Edwin Pos
  • Jodi Price
  • Xavier Raynaud
  • Zhengwei Ren
  • Christiane Roscher
  • Nicholas G. Smith
  • Carly J. Stevens
  • Lauren L. Sullivan
  • Michelle Tedder
  • Pedro M. Tognetti
  • Ciska Veen
  • George Wheeler
  • Alyssa L. Young
  • Hillary Young
  • Elizabeth T. Borer

Dominance often indicates one or a few species being best suited for resource capture and retention in a given environment. Press perturbations that change availability of limiting resources can restructure competitive hierarchies, allowing new species to capture or retain resources and leaving once dominant species fated to decline. However, dominant species may maintain high abundances even when their new environments no longer favour them due to stochastic processes associated with their high abundance, impeding deterministic processes that would otherwise diminish them. Here, we quantify the persistence of dominance by tracking the rate of decline in dominant species at 90 globally distributed grassland sites under experimentally elevated soil nutrient supply and reduced vertebrate consumer pressure. We found that chronic experimental nutrient addition and vertebrate exclusion caused certain subsets of species to lose dominance more quickly than in control plots. In control plots, perennial species and species with high initial cover maintained dominance for longer than annual species and those with low initial cover respectively. In fertilized plots, species with high initial cover maintained dominance at similar rates to control plots, while those with lower initial cover lost dominance even faster than similar species in controls. High initial cover increased the estimated time to dominance loss more strongly in plots with vertebrate exclosures than in controls. Vertebrate exclosures caused a slight decrease in the persistence of dominance for perennials, while fertilization brought perennials' rate of dominance loss in line with those of annuals. Annual species lost dominance at similar rates regardless of treatments. Synthesis. Collectively, these results point to a strong role of a species' historical abundance in maintaining dominance following environmental perturbations. Because dominant species play an outsized role in driving ecosystem processes, their ability to remain dominant—regardless of environmental conditions—is critical to anticipating expected rates of change in the structure and function of grasslands. Species that maintain dominance while no longer competitively favoured following press perturbations due to their historical abundances may result in community compositions that do not maximize resource capture, a key process of system responses to global change.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number11
Pages (from-to)2472-2482
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 11.2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was generated using data from the Nutrient Network ( ) experiment, funded at the site scale by individual researchers (Table S1 ). Coordination and data management have been supported by funding to E. Borer and E. Seabloom from the National Science Foundation Research Coordination Network (NSF‐DEB‐1042132) and Long Term Ecological Research (NSF‐DEB‐1234162 to Cedar Creek LTER) programmes, and the Institute on the Environment (DG‐0001‐13). We also thank the Minnesota Supercomputer Institute for hosting project data and the Institute on the Environment for hosting Network meetings. The findings and conclusions of this publication are those of the authors and should not be construed to represent any official USDA or U.S. Government determination or policy.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Authors. Journal of Ecology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society.

    Research areas

  • determinants of plant community diversity and structure, dominance, fertilization, global change ecology, historical contigency, plant population and community dynamics, plant–herbivore interactions
  • Biology