Question: Does the facilitative effect of cushion plants increase with elevation as a result of increases in environmental harshness? Does this hypothesis apply in the Sino-Himalayan Mountains?
Location: Lakaka Pass on the Baima Snow Mountains (28°20′N, 99°05′E), SW China.
Methods: We evaluated the spatial association of several plant species with the cushion plant Arenaria polytrichoides (Caryophyllaceae) at two elevations (4500 m and 4700 m) in the study site and monitored temperature, moisture and nutritional status of soil beneath and outside the cushions.
Results: While 14 species grow more frequently associated with the cushions at the higher elevation, at the lower site only three species were positively associated with cushions. Eleven of the species that occurred at both elevations changed their spatial association from neutral or negative with cushions at the lower site to positive at the higher elevation site. Substrate temperatures were rather similar between the cushions and areas of bare ground. Cushions maintained higher moisture than areas of bare ground at both elevations. Soils beneath cushions contained significantly more available nitrogen and potassium compared to open areas at the higher elevation.
Conclusions: Our results show that facilitation by A. polytrichoides cushions increases with elevation in the Sino-Himalayan region. This facilitation effect of A. polytrichoides cushions is probably due to the improved nutrient availability provided by cushion plants in the higher elevation, and these conditions probably permit increased plant recruitment, growth and survival.