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Gap pattern and colonization opportunities in plant communities: effects of species richness, mortality, and spatial aggregation


  • Zhen Qing Li,

  • Jan Bogaert,

  • Ivan Nijs

Z. Q. Li, Lab. Quantitative Vegetation Ecology, Inst. of Botany, Chinese Acad. of Sciences, Xiangshan Nanxincun 20, CN-100093, Beijing, China. – J. Bogaert, École Interfacultaire de Bioingénieurs, Lab. d'Écologie du Paysage, Univ. Libre de Bruxelles, Av. F. D. Roosevelt 50, B-1050 Bruxelles, Belgium. – I. Nijs (correspondence:, Res. Group Plant and Vegetation Ecology, Dept of Biology, Univ. of Antwerp, Campus Drie Eiken, Universiteitsplein 1, B-2610 Wilrijk, Belgium.


We investigate how perturbations that induce mortality transform original spatial patterns in plant communities into binary spatial patterns of survivors and perished individuals. By means of computer simulation, we analyse effects of average mortality, interspecific variation of mortality around the mean, spatial distribution of the species (clumping degree), and species richness. Gap spatial pattern is quantified by four spatial indices or landscape metrics (gap area, density, shape and coherence). In single-species communities, the emerging gap patterns are subject to critical phenomena: opportunities for colonizers to establish increase with mortality, but more rapidly at specific mortality thresholds. In multi-species communities, neither species richness nor interspecific variation of mortality influences gap spatial pattern when community assembly is random. Colonization opportunities would therefore not be affected by local species extinction in such a system, nor by the presence of species with divergent sensitivities to perturbation. In a community that is highly spatially aggregated, increases in interspecific mortality variation shift the pattern towards fewer gaps that are larger and more isodiametric, which suggests increased establishment chances for colonizers. Similar changes are induced in communities characterized by large interspecific mortality differences if clumping degree is increased. Loss of species richness only modifies gap spatial pattern to a substantial extent if mortality variation is high: in this case, depauperate communities exhibit a wider variety of colonization opportunities (more gaps which are on average smaller, but the largest gap is larger) than species-richer ones. These findings may explain the contrast between the negative diversity-invasibility relationship often found in small-scale experimental studies and the positive diversity-invasibility relationship found in observational studies at larger scale. They also demonstrate that the pre-disturbance spatial structure of a community significantly affects colonization opportunities for alien species, and is therefore a likely determinant of the trajectory of secondary succession following perturbation.