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Keywords:

  • abiotic stress;
  • arid;
  • competition;
  • environmental gradients;
  • facilitation;
  • meta-analysis;
  • plant–plant interactions;
  • semi-arid

Summary

  • 1
    Theoretical models have predicted that the relative importance of facilitation and competition will vary inversely across gradients of abiotic stress, with facilitation being the dominant interaction under high abiotic stress conditions. A critical reappraisal of current theoretical models is needed because experimental studies both support and refute their predictions.
  • 2
    A quantitative meta-analysis of field and common garden studies evaluating the effect of abiotic stress (low vs. high) on the net outcome of plant–plant interactions in arid and semi-arid environments was performed to evaluate the degree of empirical support for these models. We created four separate data sets corresponding to the categories of response variables commonly used to measure plant performance (survival, density, growth and fecundity).
  • 3
    The analyses showed that both the selection of the estimator of plant performance and the experimental approach followed have a strong influence on both the net outcome of plant–plant interactions and the effect of abiotic stress on such outcome. The effect of neighbours on the survival and growth of target plants was not significant at either stress level, but that on the density and fecundity of target plants was positive (facilitation) and negative (competition) at the low and high abiotic stress level, respectively. Density data showed that the net effect of neighbours was positive and negative at low and high abiotic stress levels, respectively, whereas other estimators suggested that the net effect of neighbours did not differ with stress level. None of our meta-analyses indicated that the magnitude of the net effect provided by neighbours, whether positive or negative, was higher under high abiotic stress conditions, and facilitation does not therefore appear to increase in importance with abiotic stress.
  • 4
    As the predictions of current theoretical models regarding the relationship between the net outcome of a plant–plant interaction and abiotic stress do not hold in arid and semi-arid environments, different models are needed. These should consider different sources of abiotic stress separately, and should be valid for performance measurements, such as survival, that integrate plant responses over time. The incorporation of these features into theoretical models will undoubtedly improve their predictive capabilities.