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Facilitation of seedling establishment by an endemic shrub in tropical coastal sand dunes

Martinez, M.L.
Plant ecology 2003 v.168 no.2 pp. 333-345
Chamaecrista, shrubs, nitrogen fixation, tropical soils, sand, dunes, Trachypogon, Schizachyrium scoparium, grasses, colonizing ability, seedling growth, seedlings, population density, viability, mortality, canopy, shade tolerance, spatial distribution, wind, soil chemistry, ecological succession, community ecology, Mexico
Facilitation is predicted to occur on coastal sand dunes as these ecosystems have the harsh physical conditions common during primary succession. In a tropical dune system on the Gulf of Mexico the spatial patterns of plant distribution were analyzed and the hypothesis that facilitation is the responsible mechanism was tested by monitoring changes in the micro-environment and performing a seedling planting experiment under natural conditions. Densities of seedlings and adults of late colonizer grasses were two to six times greater beneath the early colonizer shrub, Chamaecrista chamaecristoides, than in the exposed areas. Temperatures on the sand surface, wind speed and sand accretion were significantly reduced by the shade of Chamaecrista. Only phosphate contents during the dry season were significantly higher in sand in the shade than in exposed sand. In the field experiment, successful establishment of seedlings of two late colonizer grasses (Trachypogon plumosus and Schizachyrium scoparium) was low but was concentrated exclusively beneath the shrubs. The introduced plants were reproductive one year after onset of the experiment and remained vigorous after three years. The observed spatial aggregation among the target species may be a result of improved conditions in the shade of the shrub, which facilitated the survival and establishment of late colonizers. On top of the environmental amelioration, protection from recurrent disturbances such as substrate mobility is an additional beneficial effect of the shrub.