SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Climate change and intensified land-use impose severe stress on arid ecosystems, resulting in relatively rapid degradation which is difficult to reverse. To prevent such critical transitions it is crucial to detect early warning signals. Increased ‘patchiness’– smaller and fewer vegetated patches – is thought to be such a signal, but the underlying mechanisms are still poorly understood. Facilitation between plants is known to be an important mechanism driving the patchiness of the vegetation, but we lack understanding of how interactions between plants change in response to combined effects of drought and consumer pressure – the main stressors in many arid ecosystems. Over the last decade numerous experimental studies have tested how intensity of facilitation between plants changes with increasing stress. The most recent synthesis predicts a decline in facilitation intensity at the severe end of a drought stress gradient. Adding consumer pressure may result in even earlier and faster declines in facilitation intensity. So far, studies on critical transitions and plant–plant interactions have developed separately. The relationship between stress and facilitation intensity has been overlooked in critical transition theory, while facilitation intensity may determine the position of a critical transition threshold. In this study, we incorporate experimental studies on the relation between stress and facilitation intensity into the critical transition framework, to improve our ability to predict critical transitions. Moreover, we propose that a decline in facilitation intensity at the severe end of a stress gradient may occur prior to a critical transition. Inclusion of consumer pressure will speed up this process, leading to earlier and faster degradation. In-field monitoring of seedling–facilitator associations and declines in facilitator recruitment can indicate declines in facilitation intensity and may thus provide additional early warning signals for imminent critical transitions, besides increased patchiness.