How does “the early bird gets the worm” play out in plant communities?

By Katie Stuble, HF&G Research Scientist

You’ve heard the phrase “the early bird gets the worm”. We use it to indicate that getting somewhere first can come with big benefits. It’s snagging the choicest donuts in the office lunchroom, or the best seats in the movie theater. And so it goes in the natural world. Being the first species to get to a new place has advantages. Early plants can grab the space, shade out species that come later, take up valuable nutrients from the soil, and establish large root networks for water uptake. In ecology, we have a term for this sort of early-bird benefit – priority effects. And these priority effects can play an outsized role in determining what species you’ll find in a certain area.

One of the old fields at the Holden Arboretum. We use plant species commonly found in these sorts of old fields in this experiment.

But it’s a brave new world, and the rules of nature are bumping up against some new realities. First, more and more species from other parts of the world are establishing themselves in our natural areas. Nonnative plants often come to dominate areas by playing by a different set of rules than our native species. Second, the climate is changing and things are heating up. These hotter temperatures reset the stage on which these rules play out; changing the context in which species interact. As a result, we’re seeing some of our natural areas dominated by new species and novel plant communities arising.

Our mesocosms in the greenhouse after the first day of planting
Day 20. You can see the huge size difference between plants added on day one, versus the new additions on day 20 in the mesocosms.

My lab is currently working to understand how nonnative species and warming temperatures interact to shape “early bird” dynamics in our natural areas. Specifically, we’re exploring whether warming will speed up how quickly nonnative plants arrive at a site, and whether these changes will increase the abundance of nonnative species. To do this, we’re planting 15 species (a mix of native and nonnative) into pots in the greenhouse (in the world of science we call these mesocosms). But, we’re altering the order in which these species arrive. The data we collect in the greenhouse will help us make predications regarding how changes in the arrival order of native and nonnative species will likely reshape the natural areas at Holden and beyond. We’re still only halfway through with the planting of these timed arrivals in the experiment, but stay tuned to see how winners and losers shift as a result of altering who gets to be the “early bird.”

Setting up day 1 of the experiment at Holden’s Long Science Center.

Katie Stuble is a research scientist at Holden Forests & Gardens. She and her lab conduct research into the ways in which species interact with one another, how this shapes our natural world, and how this information can inform restoration. Katie has a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Tennessee, an MS in Ecology from the University of Georgia, and a BA in Biology from St. Mary’s College of Maryland.