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The Botany Lawn: a major research plant community

The majority of this article was compiled by John 'Bastow' Wilson.

The Botany Lawn was established by Professor G.T.S. Baylis, Otago’s first Professor of Botany, in 1965, sowing two species of grass. In the period 1965 to the present it has received constant management: no fertiliser or irrigation, and a constant mowing regime.

During that time, 33 other plant species have colonised. Considering the rapid turnover of the herbaceous species (much faster than the trees in a forest) the plant community is probably as close to equilibrium as any on Earth.

Scientific research on the lawn started as a collaborative project with Dr A.J. Watkins, then of the University of the South Pacific. Six papers resulted from this collaboration, either solely on the Botany Lawn plant community or including other sites.

  • Watkins, A.J. & Wilson, J.B. (1992) Fine-scale community structure of lawns. Journal of Ecology, 80, 15-24.S23:
  • Wilson, J.B., Roxburgh, S.H. & Watkins, A.J. (1992) Limitation to plant species coexistence at a point: a study in a New Zealand lawn. Journal of Vegetation Science, 3, 711-714.
  • Roxburgh, S.H., Watkins, A.J. & Wilson, J.B. (1993) Lawns have vertical stratification. Journal of Vegetation Science, 4, 699-704.
  • Watkins, A.J. & Wilson, J.B. (1994) Plant community structure, and its relation to the vertical complexity of communities: dominance/diversity and spatial rank consistency. Oikos, 70, 91-98.
  • Wilson, J.B. & Watkins, A.J. (1994) Guilds and assembly rules in lawn communities. Journal of Vegetation Science, 5, 591-600.
  • Watkins, A.J. & Wilson, J.B. (2003) Local texture convergence: a new approach to seeking assembly rules. Oikos, 102, 525-532.

The community matrix theory and its predictions for community stability had been widely discussed in the ecological literature. Mr Stephen Roxburgh (now Dr Roxburgh, of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Canberra) used the lawn community in his Ph.D. to make the first test of the theory. It was ideal for this, being close to equilibrium (as his tests proved) and tractable for experimentation. Five papers were published from this work:

  • Wilson, J.B. & Roxburgh, S.H. (1992) Application of ¬Com¬munity Matrix theory to plant competition data. Oikos, 65, 343-349.
  • Wilson, J.B. & Roxburgh, S.H. (1994) A demonstration of guild-based assembly rules for a plant community, and determination of intrinsic guilds. Oikos, 69, 267-276.
  • Roxburgh, S.H. & Wilson, J.B. (2000) Stability and coexistence in a lawn community: mathematical prediction of stability using a community matrix with parameters derived from competition experiments. Oikos, 88, 395-408.
  • Roxburgh, S.H. & Wilson, J.B. (2000) Stability and coexistence in a lawn community: experimental assessment of the stability of the actual community. Oikos, 88, 409-423.
  • Wilson, J.B. & Roxburgh, S.H. (2001) Intrinsic guild structure: determination from competition experiments. Oikos, 92, 189-192.

Mr N.W.H. Mason (now Dr Mason, of Landcare Research, Hamilton) further investigated assembly rules on the lawn community, tying the previous work together:

  • Mason, N.W.H. & Wilson, J.B. (2006) Mechanisms of coexistence in a lawn community: mutual corroboration between two independent assembly rules. Community Ecology, 7, 109-116.

The concept of assembly rules has been widely discussed in ecology, but evidence for them is weak. The body of work above established stronger evidence for the existence of assembly rules than has been obtained for any other community, anywhere. None of the work done on assembly rules anywhere has established the mechanisms causing the rules. Bastow Wilson supervised jointly with Dr D.J. Burritt two Ph.D. students investigating this, and have employed several summer students on the project. There are experiments currently underway on the lawn itself, one a long-term experiment.

Work from these projects has been presented at several international conferences.

All this work has given the Botany Lawn a worldwide reputation amongst plant community ecologists, some saying they would like to visit Dunedin in order to see the famous site.