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The role of nurse functional types in seedling recruitment dynamics of alternative states in rangelands

López, Dardo R., Cavallero, Laura
Acta oecologica 2017 v.79 pp. 70-80
ecosystems, environmental factors, grasses, livestock, nurse plants, overgrazing, rangelands, seedling emergence, seedlings, shrubs, species recruitment, steppes, Argentina
In arid ecosystems, recruitment dynamics are limited by harsh environmental conditions and greatly depend on the net outcome of the balance between facilitation and competition. This outcome can change as a consequence of degradation caused by livestock overgrazing. Also, distinct plant species may show a differential response to a common neighbour under the same environmental conditions. Therefore, ecosystem degradation could affect the net balance of plant-plant interactions, which can also depend on the functional traits of potential nurse species. The aim of this study is to assess the influence of alternative degradation states on (i) the density of seedlings of perennial species emerging in four microsite types, and on (ii) the relative interaction intensity (RII) between seedlings and potential nurses belonging to three functional types (deep- and shallow-rooted shrubs, and tussock grasses). During three years, we recorded seedling density of perennial species in four alternative degradation states in grass-shrubby steppes from northwestern Patagonia. The density of emerged seedlings of perennial species decreased sharply as degradation increased, showing non-linear responses in most microsites. Seedling density underneath deep-rooted shrubs was higher than underneath shallow-rooted shrubs and tussock grasses. Also, deep-rooted shrubs were the only functional type that recorded seedling emergence in highly degraded states. Deep-rooted shrubs had facilitative effects on the seedlings emerging and surviving underneath them, independently of ecosystem degradation. In contrast, RII between shallow-rooted shrubs and recently emerged seedlings, switched from positive effects in the less degraded states, to negative effects in the most degraded state. Tussock grasses recorded the weakest intensity of facilitative interactions with recently emerged seedlings, switching to competitive interactions as degradation increased. Our results suggest that species with key functional traits should be considered in management and restoration plans for rangelands with different degradation levels, since they have a strong influence in the net outcome of plant-plant interactions and in the recruitment dynamics of arid ecosystems.