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Positive effects of shrubs on plant species diversity do not change along a gradient in grazing pressure in an arid shrubland

Howard, Kimberley S.C., Eldridge, David J., Soliveres, Santiago
Basic and applied ecology 2012 v.13 no.2 pp. 159-168
biogeochemical cycles, grazing, herbivores, nurse plants, perennials, plant communities, shrublands, shrubs, soil, soil quality, species diversity, understory
Facilitative or positive interactions among species are driven mainly by the environmental amelioration or protection from grazing provided by nurse plants. Some studies have suggested that protection from grazing is inconsequential in water-limited environments because of low herbivore densities and their grazing effects. Others, however, argue that herbivores have a major effect on semi-arid plant communities, and that protection from grazing is a significant factor driving positive plant–plant interactions in such environments. We identified a gradient in grazing pressure in a semi-arid shrubland in south-eastern Australia along which we compared soil condition, incident radiation and plant composition beneath two nurse shrub species with open (shrub-free) interspaces. Our aim was to assess the degree of microclimatic amelioration provided by both shrubs, and changes in the interactions (intensity, importance and frequency) between both nurse shrubs and their understorey species, and their effects on species richness at the community level. Both the relative interaction intensity (RII) and interaction importance (Iᵢₘₚ) indices of plant–plant interactions were generally positive and independent of grazing pressure. Soil beneath both nurse plants had significantly greater indices of nutrient cycling and infiltration, and contained more C and N than soil in the open. Almost twice as many species occurred under the canopies of both shrubs (44 species) than in the open (23 species), and the composition of species differed significantly among microsites. Fifty-four percent of all perennial plant species occurred exclusively under shrubs. Our results suggest that environmental amelioration is a stronger driver of the facilitatory effect of shrubs on their understorey species than protection from grazing. Our conclusions are based on the fact that the substantial effect of plant–plant interactions on plant species richness was largely independent of grazing pressure. Irrespective of the underlying mechanism for this effect, our study illustrates the ecological role of shrubs as refugia for understorey plants in semi-arid environments and cautions against management practices aimed at reducing shrub populations.