In relatively harsh environments such as arctic tundra, abiotic factors have traditionally been considered the primary determinants of community structure, overwhelming any effects of biotic interactions such as competition. Two common low arctic tundra types that differ in soil properties, moist acidic and moist non-acidic tussock tundra (MAT and MNT, respectively), occur in close proximity in northern Alaska. Several plant species occur in both communities with different relative abundance, while others are restricted to one. This study experimentally examined how neighboring vegetation affects germination, survival, and growth of species in these two communities that differ in soil pH, cation availability, and other characteristics.
Germination of sown seeds was greater than background levels suggesting seed limitation may restrict recruitment of these clonal, perennial species. Germination of sown seeds was greater at both sites when both mosses and vascular plants had been removed compared to plots with intact vegetation. However, neighbors had almost no effect on survival and growth of adult transplants. Patterns of germination, survival and growth of several species differed depending on the community of origin and the community of destination of the seeds or transplanted adults. For example, transplants of the sedge Eriophorum vaginatum grew better if they were from MAT, and this species germinated better when sown at MNT. Although of relatively short duration (three growing seasons), this study suggests that biotic interactions may affect local species composition by restricting germination and establishment in these two communities, but have less of an effect on adult plants. Not surprisingly, site-specific abiotic conditions also exhibit control over species occurrence and relative abundance. Without disturbance to clear bare ground for recruitment of new individuals, these populations for the most part must rely on clonal growth to persist.