Moving forward on facilitation research: response to changing environments and effects on the diversity, functioning and evolution of plant communities

Authors

  • Santiago Soliveres,

    Corresponding author
    1. Área de Biodiversidad y Conservación, Departamento de Biología y Geología, Escuela Superior de Ciencias Experimentales y Tecnología, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Móstoles, Spain
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    • Present address: Institute of Plant Sciences, University of Bern, Alterbengrain 21, 3013 Bern, Switzerland.
  • Christian Smit,

    1. Community and Conservation Ecology Group, Centre for Evolutionary and Ecological Studies, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands
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  • Fernando T. Maestre

    1. Área de Biodiversidad y Conservación, Departamento de Biología y Geología, Escuela Superior de Ciencias Experimentales y Tecnología, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Móstoles, Spain
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ABSTRACT

Once seen as anomalous, facilitative interactions among plants and their importance for community structure and functioning are now widely recognized. The growing body of modelling, descriptive and experimental studies on facilitation covers a wide variety of terrestrial and aquatic systems throughout the globe. However, the lack of a general body of theory linking facilitation among different types of organisms and biomes and their responses to environmental changes prevents further advances in our knowledge regarding the evolutionary and ecological implications of facilitation in plant communities. Moreover, insights gathered from alternative lines of inquiry may substantially improve our understanding of facilitation, but these have been largely neglected thus far. Despite over 15 years of research and debate on this topic, there is no consensus on the degree to which plant–plant interactions change predictably along environmental gradients (i.e. the stress-gradient hypothesis), and this hinders our ability to predict how plant–plant interactions may affect the response of plant communities to ongoing global environmental change. The existing controversies regarding the response of plant–plant interactions across environmental gradients can be reconciled when clearly considering and determining the species-specificity of the response, the functional or individual stress type, and the scale of interest (pairwise interactions or community-level response). Here, we introduce a theoretical framework to do this, supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence. We also discuss current gaps in our knowledge regarding how plant–plant interactions change along environmental gradients. These include the existence of thresholds in the amount of species-specific stress that a benefactor can alleviate, the linearity or non-linearity of the response of pairwise interactions across distance from the ecological optimum of the beneficiary, and the need to explore further how frequent interactions among multiple species are and how they change across different environments. We review the latest advances in these topics and provide new approaches to fill current gaps in our knowledge. We also apply our theoretical framework to advance our knowledge on the evolutionary aspects of plant facilitation, and the relative importance of facilitation, in comparison with other ecological processes, for maintaining ecosystem structure, functioning and dynamics. We build links between these topics and related fields, such as ecological restoration, woody encroachment, invasion ecology, ecological modelling and biodiversity–ecosystem-functioning relationships. By identifying commonalities and insights from alternative lines of research, we further advance our understanding of facilitation and provide testable hypotheses regarding the role of (positive) biotic interactions in the maintenance of biodiversity and the response of ecological communities to ongoing environmental changes.

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