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Shrub–ephemeral plants interactions in semiarid north-central Chile: Is the nurse plant syndrome manifested at the community level?

Madrigal-González, Jaime, Kelt, Douglas A., Meserve, Peter L., Squeo, Francisco A., Gutiérrez, Julio R.
Journal of arid environments 2016 v.126 pp. 47-53
arid lands, biomass production, canopy, correspondence analysis, dry environmental conditions, ecosystems, models, national parks, nurse plants, plant communities, shrublands, shrubs, species diversity, Chile
Models of plant–plant interactions suggest that nurse plants are critical for the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem functions in arid and semiarid lands. At the community scale, however, empirical support of this idea is limited and context-dependent. Following on a preliminary work which suggested that a dominant shrub in north-central Chile (Porlieria chilensis) had nurse plant effects, we tested the effects of this and two other shrubs (Adesmia bedwellii and Proustia cuneifolia) on community biomass production, species density, and species composition of ephemeral plants in the semiarid scrub of the Bosque Fray Jorge National Park (Chile) over four consecutive years. We tested for main and interactive effects of shrubs and precipitation on total biomass production and species density of ephemeral plant communities using Generalized Linear Mixed Models (GLMM). To analyze the effects of shrubs and precipitation on species composition we used Canonical Correspondence Analysis (CCA) and t-value biplot analysis. Total biomass production increased significantly with precipitation and was consistently lower beneath shrub canopies, particularly under A. bedwellii and P. chilensis. Although ephemeral plant species density generally was higher in open areas, differences between open and shrub canopy samples diminished with increasing precipitation. Finally, despite significant differences in ephemeral plant species composition between open areas and shrub canopies, we found no evidence of shrub species-specific effects. In conclusion, our results do not support a classical nurse plant syndrome in the semiarid scrub of the Bosque Fray Jorge National Park although shrubs can increase local diversity by favoring some ephemeral plant species that are absent in open areas.