The shape is more important than we ever thought: Plant to plant interactions in a high mountain community
Plant to plant interactions are probably the most important driver of species coexistence at fine spatial scales, but their detection represents a challenge in Ecology. Spatial point pattern analysis (SPPA) is likely the approach most used to identify them, however, it suffers from some limitations related to the over-simplification of individuals to points. Here, we propose a new approach called Overlapping Area Analysis (OAA) to test whether the consideration of the shape and orientation of the individuals reveal signs of interactions between species that would remain undetected with SPPA. We used this approach to analyse a fully mapped cryophilic grassland in the Sierra de Guadarrama National Park (Spain), where the crown of each individual plant (i.e. the species canopy) was approximated by a polygon. We then computed and compared the total overlapping area between the canopy of a focal species and that of any other species in the community with the expectations of a null model of random rotation of each plant around its centroid. We complemented the results of our new approach by comparing with that of SPPA of plants’ centroids. Results of OAA showed that up to 41% of species pairs had less canopy overlap than expected, suggesting that many interspecific canopy associations in this plant community were significantly negative at the finest spatial scale. Contrarily, SPPA estimated that 12% of species pairs were positively associated at spatial scales up to 20 cm, confirming the facilitative effect displayed by the main engineer in the community (Festuca curvifolia Lag.) and by some other dominant species. Our new approach quantifying canopy associations provides new insights into the processes guiding community assembly. While the results of SPPA suggested the prevalence of traditional ‘stress gradient hypothesis’ (i.e. prevalence of positive interactions under stressful abiotic conditions), OAA revealed that many interspecific canopy associations were significantly negative. Overall, most facilitated species optimized this positive effect by placing their centroids as close to the benefactor species as their foraging behaviour allowed while avoiding crown overlap. The method proposed is available in a dedicated r-package that will facilitate its application by other ecologists.
We thank Carlos Díaz, Felipe García and Jesús López for their technical assistance in this work. This study was supported by the projects REMEDINAL TE-CM (S2018/EMT-4338) and ROOTS (CGL2015-66809-P). Robert B. O’Hara and two anonymous reviewers provided useful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.
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