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Assessing occurrence, specificity, and mechanisms of plant facilitation in terrestrial ecosystems

Bonanomi, Giuliano, Incerti, Guido, Mazzoleni, Stefano
Plant ecology 2011 v.212 no.11 pp. 1777-1790
abiotic stress, ecosystems, environmental factors, fruits, herbaceous plants, longevity, nitrogen, nitrogen fixation, nurse plants, plant communities, recruitment, soil fertility
Plants alter environmental conditions enhancing the recruitment of other species. In spite of prior reviews of facilitation, the variability of its occurrence, mechanisms, and specificity across terrestrial ecosystems has not yet been assessed. In this article, we analyze facilitative mechanisms and the distribution of specific traits, such as nitrogen fixation and the presence of fleshy fruits, across ecosystems. A comprehensive database including 2,080 cases of facilitation among higher plants from 539 articles was analyzed with descriptive statistics for occurrences of positive interactions and underlying mechanisms in different terrestrial ecosystems. Positive interactions by plant-induced environmental changes are widespread in a range of ecosystems and not limited to conditions of chronic abiotic stress such as semiarid, alpine, and wetland ecosystems. The capability to act as nurse largely varied among different growth forms, and was observed more frequently for woody than for herbaceous plants. Nitrogen fixers occur much more frequently as nurse plants than as beneficiary plants in facilitation cases due to increasing soil fertility. As known for Mediterranean ecosystems, fleshy-fruited species appear more dependent on facilitative interactions than other plants, being more frequent among beneficiaries than among nurses. The pattern can be extended worldwide being consistent in wetland, temperate, and alpine ecosystems as well. Our description of the relationship between distribution, mechanisms, and specificity of facilitation in terrestrial ecosystems has implications for the understanding of plant community organization considering that plant nursing capacity is affected by their size, architecture, and life span.