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Keywords:

  • Competition;
  • Facilitation;
  • Nurse-plant effect;
  • Point pattern analysis;
  • Succulent Karoo

Abstract. Question: In semi-arid systems, rainfall gradients can cause plant-plant interactions to shift from negative to positive or vice versa. However, the importance of a second major abiotic factor, soil nutrients, has rarely been considered. We consider different combinations of both factors and ask: do net adult-seedling interactions become less competitive and more facilitative with increasing overall abiotic harshness?

Location: Succulent Karoo, Western Cape, South Africa.

Methods: We examined the interactions between seedlings and adult shrubs at two sites. Sites differ in rainfall, and each contain two habitats: Nutrient-rich mounds associated with underground termitaria and a relatively nutrient-poor matrix. We carried out a spatial pattern analysis of community-wide seedling-adult associations. We then conducted field and greenhouse experiments to test the effects of soil and the presence of neighbouring shrubs on the growth and survival of six seedling species.

Results: At the higher rainfall site, both competitive and facilitative effects of adults on seedlings were found but did not differ by habitat, despite the more benign conditions in the mound habitat. At the lower rainfall site, adult shrubs generally had neutral effects on seedlings in the matrix habitat. In the nutrient-rich mound habitat, however, adult shrubs had strong and consistently competitive effects on seedlings.

Conclusion: Seedling-adult interactions could not be predicted by a simple overall gradient of abiotic harshness, demonstrating the need for more complex, mechanistic models to predict plant-plant interactions. We suggest that rainfall and soil nutrients affect seedling-adult relations through their interactive effects on the life-history attributes of the species involved.