Partitioning net interactions among plants along altitudinal gradients to study community responses to climate change



  1. Altitudinal gradients provide a useful space-for-time substitution to examine the capacity for plant competition and facilitation to mediate responses to climate change. Decomposing net interactions into their facilitative and competitive components, and quantifying the performance of plants with and without neighbours along altitudinal gradients, may prove particularly informative in understanding the mechanisms behind plant responses to environmental change.
  2. To decouple the inherent responses of species to climate from the responses of plant–plant interactions to climate, we conducted a meta-analysis. Using data from 16 alpine experiments, we tested if changes in net interactions along altitudinal gradients were due to a change in the performance of target species without neighbours (i.e. environmental severity effects only) or with neighbours (neighbour trait mediated effects).
  3. There was a global shift from competition to facilitation with increasing altitude driven by both environmental severity and neighbour trait effects. However, this global pattern was strongly influenced by the high number of studies in mesic climates and driven by competition at low altitude in temperate climates (neighbour trait effect), and facilitation at high altitude in arctic and temperate climates (environmental severity effect).
  4. In Mediterranean systems, there was no significant effect of competition, and facilitation increased with decreasing altitude. Changes in facilitation with altitude could not unambiguously be attributed to either neighbour trait effects or environmental severity effects, probably because of the opposing stress gradients of cold and aridity in dry environments.
  5. Partitioning net interactions along altitudinal gradients led to the prediction that climate change should decrease the importance of facilitation in mesic alpine communities, which might in turn exacerbate the negative effects of climate change in these regions. In xeric climates, the importance of facilitation by drought-tolerant species should increase at low altitudes which should mitigate the negative effect of climate change. However, the importance of facilitation by cold-tolerant species at high altitudes may decrease and exacerbate the effects of climate change.