The natural history of a fugitive prairie plant (Mirabilis hirsuta (Pursh) MacM.)

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Some perennial fugitive plants that colonize badger disturbances in xeric prairies have a limited dispersal capacity, and consequently propagules are dispersed over a small area. I hypothesized that high density-dependent mortality might occur early in the life history of such species, and thus increased survival might occur in subsequent age classes because intraspecific competition would be reduced. These hypotheses were tested using natural and experimental cohorts of Mirabilis hirsuta (Pursh) MacM. From these data and field observations, inferences were obtained concerning selective forces operating upon life history characteristics of this species. The distance between individuals of M. hirsuta increases in successive age classes; the greatest decrease in density occurs between the propagule and seedling age classes. Mortality of propagules due to predation by ants and mice was density-dependent. Predation rates were highest at high propagule densities and predation upon propagules located on badger disturbances was higher than the mortality of propagules at similar densities in undisturbed prairie. The results of mortality in the propagule age class are seedlings present only at low densities and located away from parent plants. Seedlings survive to maturity only if they are located on badger disturbances; this species apparently can not successfully compete with plants present in undistrubed prairie. On badger disturbances seedlings present at low densities have much higher survival (roughly 50%) to maturity than do seedlings present at high densities (essentially zero). Thus, if high densities of propagules occur on a disturbance, predation upon propagules results, indirectly, in increased survival of seedlings to maturity. Such predation potentially could have important effects upon interspecific competition of M. hirsuta with other fugitives also colonizing badger disturbances. Reproductive success of M. hirsuta on the Cayler Prairie Preserve is contingent upon successful colonization of disturbance sites. It would appear that selection has operated upon the life history characteristics to favor both successful immigration onto new sites and establishment of seedlings on those sites. Relatively few, but large propagules are produced annually over a long adult life span. While large propagules enhance seedling establishment on xeric sites, production of few propagules annually for a number of years increases the likelihood of immigration onto sites that are variable in the time of appearance within the dispersal range of the plant. © 1976 Springer-Verlag.

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