1. Although the consequences of facilitation at individual and population levels are well known, the community-level consequences of these processes have received much less attention. In particular, the importance of facilitation in determining richness at the entire community level has seldom been evaluated.
2. In this study, we sampled 11 alpine plant communities along the southern Andes in South America, spanning from tropical (25°S) to sub-antarctic latitudes (55°S). Plant communities were dominated by cushion plants, a particular growth form that acts as a nurse plant for other plant species. Through rarefaction curves, we assessed the effectiveness of community sampling and estimated the number of species present within and outside cushions. Non-metric Multidimensional Scaling ordinations (NMDS) were used to assess differences between the species assemblages growing within and outside cushions. Finally, samples from cushions and open areas were combined in a single matrix accounting for the difference in cover between both microhabitats, and through rarefaction curves we assessed how many more species are added to the community due to the presence of cushions.
3. Samples taken within cushions always contained more species than equivalent samples from open areas. However, the magnitude of this difference varied among communities. NMDS ordination indicated that cushions generate species assemblages structurally different from those found in open areas. Inclusion of samples from cushion and open areas in synthetic analyses – where differences in cover were accounted for – indicated that the presence of cushions consistently increased species richness at the entire community level. The magnitude of these increases in species richness varied with habitat severity, with lower values at both extremes of the environmental severity gradient.
4.Synthesis. Facilitative interactions with cushion nurse plants along the high Andes of southern South America changed plant assemblage structure and increased species richness at the entire community level, indicating that facilitative interactions are pivotal in maintaining the diversity of these harsh environments.