The strength of competitive and facilitative interactions in plant communities is expected to change along resource gradients. Contrasting theoretical models predict that with increasing abiotic stress, facilitative effects are higher, lower, or similar than those found under more productive conditions. While these predictions have been tested in stressful environments such as arid and alpine ecosystems, they have hardly been tested for more productive African woodlands. We experimentally assessed the strength of tree seedling facilitation by nurse trees in mesic and dry woodlands in Benin, West Africa. We planted seedlings of the drought-sensitive Afzelia africana and the drought-tolerant Khaya senegalensis under three microsite conditions (closed woodland, woodland gap, and open fields). Seedling survival was greater within woodlands compared with open fields in both the mesic and dry woodlands. The relative benefits in seedling survival were larger at the dry site, especially for the drought-sensitive species. Nevertheless, plant interactions became neutral or negative during the dry season in the drier woodland, indicating that the net positive effects may be lost under very stressful abiotic conditions. We conclude that facilitation also occurs in the relatively more productive conditions of African woodlands. Our results underscore the role of environmental variation in space and time, and the stress tolerance of species, in explaining competitive and facilitative interactions within plant communities.
Abstract in French is available at http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/loi/btp.