, Volume 54, Issue 2, pp 335-346
Date: 14 Feb 2012

Ruderality in extreme-desert cacti? Population effects of chronic anthropogenic disturbance on Echinocereus lindsayi

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Ruderal species, i.e., those that increase their numbers in the presence of disturbance, are not expected to occur in extreme environments. We test whether Echinocereus lindsayi, a cactus from an extreme desert, follows the ruderal trend observed in similar species from mild deserts, or, as theory suggests, it is a non ruderal. Contrary to expectations, its density and fraction of small individuals in the population increased with disturbance. This seemingly results from increased establishment, as it is nursed by rocks exposed by disturbance. A demographic model for two populations, one nearly pristine and another highly disturbed, showed that at the latter site recruitment was more frequent and likely. At the disturbed site the performance of E. lindsayi individuals was usually poor, except on favorable years. Then, competition release caused by disturbance apparently allowed for a better performance compared to the less disturbed site. Despite that this opportunistic behavior would suffice to maintain the population size stable, the large mortality produced by an insect outbreak in two of the four study years caused the population to diminish. In contrast, the population at the less disturbed site was near equilibrium. If the insect outbreak is associated to disturbance, E. lindsayi at the disturbed site would be already experiencing more disturbance than it tolerates. This agrees with the fact that no populations were found at greater disturbance intensities. While, contrary to our hypothesis, E. lindsayi is ruderal, this extreme desert species appears to tolerate far less disturbance than its counterparts from milder areas.