Counterbalancing effects of competition for resources and facilitation against grazing in alpine snowbed communities

Authors


C. Schöb, Inst. of Geography, Univ. of Bern, Hallerstrasse 12, CH–3012 Bern, Switzerland. E-mail: christian.schoeb@gmx.ch

Abstract

Alpine snowbeds are habitats where the major limiting factors for plant growth are herbivory and a small time window for growth due to late snowmelt. Despite these limitations, snowbed vegetation usually forms a dense carpet of palatable plants due to favourable abiotic conditions for plant growth within the short growing season. These environmental characteristics make snowbeds particularly interesting to study the interplay of facilitation and competition. We hypothesised an interplay between resource competition and facilitation against herbivory. Further, we investigated whether these predicted neighbour effects were species-specific and/or dependent on ontogeny, and whether the balance of positive and negative plant–plant interactions shifted along a snowmelt gradient. We determined the neighbour effects by means of neighbour removal experiments along the snowmelt gradient, and linear mixed model analyses. The results showed that the effects of neighbour removal were weak but generally consistent among species and snowmelt dates, and depended on whether biomass production or survival was considered. Higher total biomass and increased fruiting in removal plots indicated that plants competed for nutrients, water, and light, thereby supporting the hypothesis of prevailing competition for resources in snowbeds. However, the presence of neighbours reduced herbivory and thereby also facilitated survival. For plant growth the facilitative effects against herbivores in snowbeds counterbalanced competition for resources, leading to a weak negative net effect. Overall the neighbour effects were not species-specific and did not change with snowmelt date. Our finding of counterbalancing effects of competition and facilitation within a plant community is of special theoretical value for species distribution models and can explain the success of models that give primary importance to abiotic factors and tend to overlook interrelations between biotic and abiotic effects on plants.

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