Shifting species interactions in terrestrial dryland ecosystems under altered water availability and climate change




Species interactions play key roles in linking the responses of populations, communities, and ecosystems to environmental change. For instance, species interactions are an important determinant of the complexity of changes in trophic biomass with variation in resources. Water resources are a major driver of terrestrial ecology and climate change is expected to greatly alter the distribution of this critical resource. While previous studies have documented strong effects of global environmental change on species interactions in general, responses can vary from region to region. Dryland ecosystems occupy more than one-third of the Earth's land mass, are greatly affected by changes in water availability, and are predicted to be hotspots of climate change. Thus, it is imperative to understand the effects of environmental change on these globally significant ecosystems.

Here, we review studies of the responses of population-level plant-plant, plant-herbivore, and predator-prey interactions to changes in water availability in dryland environments in order to develop new hypotheses and predictions to guide future research. To help explain patterns of interaction outcomes, we developed a conceptual model that views interaction outcomes as shifting between (1) competition and facilitation (plant-plant), (2) herbivory, neutralism, or mutualism (plant-herbivore), or (3) neutralism and predation (predator-prey), as water availability crosses physiological, behavioural, or population-density thresholds. We link our conceptual model to hypothetical scenarios of current and future water availability to make testable predictions about the influence of changes in water availability on species interactions. We also examine potential implications of our conceptual model for the relative importance of top-down effects and the linearity of patterns of change in trophic biomass with changes in water availability. Finally, we highlight key research needs and some possible broader impacts of our findings. Overall, we hope to stimulate and guide future research that links changes in water availability to patterns of species interactions and the dynamics of populations and communities in dryland ecosystems.