"These benefits derive primarily from the diverse grasses and flowering plants that comprise grassland communities. When we lose that diversity, we risk losing those benefits. We found that spillover, especially of wind-dispersed plant species, is an important means for promoting biodiversity in restored grasslands," added Sullivan in the study published in the journal, 'Applied Ecology.'
Ecologists describe spillover as the natural movement of species from one habitat to another. The concept is commonly associated with marine habitats, where fish spillover from protected areas can be used to improve adjacent fisheries.
Unlike fish, plants rely on external forces, like wind and animals, to move their seeds. Where seeds land also can determine whether they will grow.
"Because plant dispersal and establishment depend not only on who's producing seed but also where the seed is landing, we wanted to know whether and under what conditions spillover could be used to increase biodiversity in grassland systems," said Sullivan.
To do this, researchers studied restored prairies that are adjacent to remnant prairies in northwest Minnesota. They included restored prairies with varying levels of diversity.
To measure spillover, they catalogued every plant species across the entirety of the remnant site and then in the adjacent restored prairie up to 400 feet from the boundary between the prairies.
Plant species included in the original seed mix for the restored prairie were removed from the list, leaving only species that could have arrived by spillover. They examined whether the species richness of the restored prairies and individual plant dispersal traits affected the spillover they observed.
The researchers found evidence of spillover in restorations seeded with a low diversity of species. They also found more spillover of wind-dispersed species than those dispersed by animals or passive mechanisms.
They concluded that spillover from remnant prairies is an important factor increasing biodiversity in restored grasslands, but that context matters.