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Impacts of ecosystem engineers on community attributes: effects of cushion plants at different elevations of the Chilean Andes


*Correspondence: Ernesto I. Badano, Departamento de Botánica, Facultad de Ciencias Naturales y Oceanográficas, Universidad de Concepción, Casilla 160-C, Concepción, Chile. E-mail:


Ecosystem engineers are organisms able to modulate environmental forces and, hence, may change the habitat conditions for other species. In so doing, ecosystem engineers may affect both species richness and evenness of communities and, in consequence, change species diversity. If these changes in community attributes are related to the magnitude of the habitat changes induced by the engineers, it seems likely that engineer species will have greater effects on diversity in sites where they cause larger habitat changes. We addressed this issue by evaluating the effects of three alpine cushion plants on species richness, evenness, and diversity of high-Andean plant communities. Given that the difference in microclimatic conditions between cushions and the external environment increases with elevation, we proposed that these organisms should have greater effects on community attributes at higher than at lower elevation sites. Results showed that the three cushion species had positive effects on species richness, diversity, and evenness of plant communities. It was also observed that the magnitude of these effects changed with elevation: positive effects on species richness and diversity increased towards upper sites for the three cushions species, whereas positive effects on evenness increased with elevation for one cushion species but decreased with elevation for other two cushion species. These results suggest that the presence of cushions is important to maintain plant diversity in high-Andean communities, but this positive effect on diversity seems to increase as the difference in environmental conditions between cushions and the external environment increases with elevation.