Date of Award

5-2016

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Major Professor

Nathan J. Sanders

Committee Members

Aimee T. Classen, Joseph K. Bailey, Sean M. Schaeffer

Abstract

Ecologists have long sought to understand the processes that lead to the riotous diversity in communities of organisms that inhabit disparate climates and landscapes. Such a diversity of traits leads to a diversity of interactions among species in natural communities, which in turn generates a diversity of potential responses to ongoing global change. In this dissertation, I do three things: I explore the forces that structure plant communities and the ecosystem functions that they mediate, I describe patterns of variation among communities, species, and individual organisms across environmental contexts, and I disentangle the direct effects of global change from the indirect, cascading effects that result from disruptions of species interactions. I accomplish these goals through the synthesis of global data, the development of statistical and mathematical models, and the manipulation of global change drivers in field experiments. In the first chapter, I present a globe-spanning meta-analysis of plant functional trait patterns along elevational gradients. This meta-analysis shows that the plant traits that drive ecosystem function follow predictable trends with elevation due to climate filtering, and that much of this variation is at the level of the individual organism. In the second chapter, I present simulated data sets and illustrative experimental case studies that quantify how important individual-level variation is for explaining patterns in nature. In the third chapter, I present results from intensive plant sampling across a wide range of mountain environments; even in these harsh environments where only the hardiest species can survive, individual-level variation is so high that it makes predictions based on species identity nearly impossible. The fourth and fifth chapters consist of experimental evidence that ongoing human-caused global change is affecting montane plant communities, that species interactions mediate many of these effects, and that variation in the abiotic environment causes variation in both species interactions and in global change response. I demonstrate this through an experiment that combines nitrogen fertilization with removal of a dominant plant species in a montane meadow, and an experiment replicated at low and high elevations crossing dominant species removal with simulation of global warming.

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