Disturbance Frequency and Community Stability in Native Tallgrass Prairie
Ecological communities are spatially and temporally variable in response to a variety of biotic and abiotic forces. It is not always clear, however, if spatial and temporal variability leads to instability in communities. Instability may result from strong biotic interactions or from stochastic processes acting on small populations. I used 10–15 yr of annual data from the Konza Prairie Long‐Term Ecological Research site to examine whether plant, breeding bird, grasshopper, and small mammal communities in tallgrass prairie exhibit stability or directional change in response to different experimentally induced fire frequencies. Based on ordination and ANOVA, plant and grasshopper communities on annually burned sites differed significantly from plant and grasshopper communities on less frequently burned sites. Breeding birds and small mammals differed among sites as well, but these differences were not clearly related to disturbance frequency. A modified time series analysis indicated that plant communities were undergoing directional change (unstable) on all watersheds, regardless of fire frequency. Contrary to expectations, directional change was greatest on the annually burned sites and lowest on the infrequently burned sites. Unlike the plant communities, breeding bird, grasshopper, and small mammal communities were temporally stable, despite high‐compositional variability from 1 yr to the next. Stability among the consumer communities within these dynamic plant communities occurs because three‐dimensional vegetation structure does not change over time, despite changes in plant species composition. Evidence suggests that instability in the plant community results from strong biotic interactions among temporally persistent core species and stochastic dynamics among infrequent satellite species. Overall, community stability cannot be assessed if the pattern of temporal dynamics is unknown. Long‐term empirical studies of different taxa under different disturbance regimes are needed to determine over what time frames and spatial scales communities may be stable. Such studies are essential for the development of generalities regarding the relationship between disturbance frequency and community stability in terrestrial and aquatic systems.