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The importance of plant life form on spatial associations along a subtropical coastal dune gradient




Does the spatial association between isolated adult trees and understorey plants change along a gradient of sand dunes? Does this association depend on the life form of the understorey plant?


Coastal sand dunes, southeast Brazil.


We recorded the occurrence of understorey plant species in 100 paired 0.25 m2 plots under adult trees and in adjacent treeless sites along an environmental gradient from beach to inland. Occurrence probabilities were modelled as a function of the fixed variables of the presence of a neighbour, distance from the seashore and life form, and a random variable, the block (i.e. the pair of plots). Generalized linear mixed models (GLMM) were fitted in a backward step-wise procedure using Akaike's information criterion (AIC) for model selection.


The occurrence of understorey plants was affected by the presence of an adult tree neighbour, but the effect varied with the life form of the understorey species. Positive spatial association was found between isolated adult neighbour and young trees, whereas a negative association was found for shrubs. Moreover, a neutral association was found for lianas, whereas for herbs the effect of the presence of an adult neighbour ranged from neutral to negative, depended on the subgroup considered. The strength of the negative association with forbs increased with distance from the seashore. However, for the other life forms, the associational pattern with adult trees did not change along the gradient.


For most of the understorey life forms there is no evidence that the spatial association between isolated adult trees and understorey plants changes with the distance from the seashore, as predicted by the stress gradient hypothesis, a common hypothesis in the literature about facilitation in plant communities. Furthermore, the positive spatial association between isolated adult trees and young trees identified along the entire gradient studied indicates a positive feedback that explains the transition from open vegetation to forest in subtropical coastal dune environments.