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Keywords:

  • Biotic interactions;
  • community ecology;
  • ecosystems and climates;
  • environmental stress;
  • facilitation;
  • invasive species;
  • meta-analysis;
  • plant traits;
  • the stress-gradient hypothesis

Abstract

The study of positive species interactions is a rapidly evolving field in ecology. Despite decades of research, controversy has emerged as to whether positive and negative interactions predictably shift with increasing environmental stress as hypothesised by the stress-gradient hypothesis (SGH). Here, we provide a synthesis of 727 tests of the SGH in plant communities across the globe to examine its generality across a variety of ecological factors. Our results show that plant interactions change with stress through an outright shift to facilitation (survival) or a reduction in competition (growth and reproduction). In a limited number of cases, plant interactions do not respond to stress, but they never shift towards competition with stress. These findings are consistent across stress types, plant growth forms, life histories, origins (invasive vs. native), climates, ecosystems and methodologies, though the magnitude of the shifts towards facilitation with stress is dependent on these factors. We suggest that future studies should employ standardised definitions and protocols to test the SGH, take a multi-factorial approach that considers variables such as plant traits in addition to stress, and apply the SGH to better understand how species and communities will respond to environmental change.