Soil as a mediator in plant-plant interactions in a semi-arid community


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Abstract. Competition and facilitation may occur simultaneously in plant communities, and the prevalence of either process depends on abiotic conditions. Here we attempt a community-wide approach in the analysis of plant interactions, exploring whether in a semi-arid environment positive or negative interactions predominate and whether there are differences among co-occurring shrub species. Most shrubs in our plot exerted significant effects on their understorey communities, ranging from negative to positive. We found a clear case of interference and another case where the effect was neutral, but facilitation predominated and the biomass of annuals under most shrubs in our community was larger than in gaps. Effects on soil water and fertility were revealed as the primary source of facilitation; the build-up of soil organic matter changed soil physical properties and improved soil water relations. Facilitation by shrubs involved decoupling of soil temperature and moisture. Sheltering from direct radiation had an effect on productivity, but significant differences in understorey biomass did not parallel understorey light environment. A positive balance of the interaction among plants, essentially mediated by changes in soil properties, is the predominant outcome of plant interactions in this semi-arid community.