Rethinking plant community theory



Plant communities have traditionally been viewed as either a random collection of individuals or as organismal entities. For most ecologists however, neither perspective provides a modern comprehensive view of plant communities, but we have yet to formalize the view that we currently hold. Here, we assert that an explicit re-consideration of formal community theory must incorporate interactions that have recently been prominent in plant ecology, namely facilitation and indirect effects among competitors. These interactions do not suppport the traditional individualistic perspective. We believe that rejecting strict individualistic theory will allow ecologists to better explain variation occurring at different spatial scales, synthesize more general predictive theories of community dynamics, and develop models for community-level responses to global change. Here, we introduce the concept of the integrated community (IC) which proposes that natural plant communities range from highly individualistic to highly interdependent depending on synergism among: (i) stochastic processes, (ii) the abiotic tolerances of species, (iii) positive and negative interactions among plants, and (iv) indirect interactions within and between trophic levels. All of these processes are well accepted by plant ecologists, but no single theory has sought to integrate these different processes into our concept of communities.