Nurse plants, tree saplings and grazing pressure: changes in facilitation along a biotic environmental gradient
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Current conceptual models predict that an increase in stress shifts interactions between plants from competitive to facilitative; hence, facilitation is expected to gain in ecological importance with increasing stress. Little is known about how facilitative interactions between plants change with increasing biotic stress, such as that incurred by consumer pressure or herbivory (i.e. disturbance sensu Grime). In grazed ecosystems, the presence of unpalatable plants is reported to protect tree saplings against cattle grazing and enhance tree establishment. In accordance with current conceptual facilitation-stress models, we hypothesised a positive relationship between facilitation and grazing pressure. We tested this hypothesis in a field experiment in which tree saplings of four different species (deciduous Fagus sylvatica, Acer pseudoplatanus and coniferous Abies alba, Picea abies) were planted either inside or outside of the canopy of the spiny nurse shrub Rosa rubiginosa in enclosures differing in grazing pressure (low and high) and in exclosures. During one grazing season we followed the survival of the different tree saplings and the level of browsing on these; we also estimated browsing damage to the nurse shrubs. Shrub damage was highest at the higher grazing pressure. Correspondingly, browsing increased and survival decreased in saplings located inside the canopy of the shrubs at the high grazing pressure compared to the low grazing pressure. Saplings of both deciduous species showed a higher survival than the evergreens, while sapling browsing did not differ between species. The relative facilitation of sapling browsing and sapling survival – i.e. the difference between saplings inside and outside the shrub canopy – decreased at high grazing pressure as the facilitative species became less protective. Interestingly, these findings do not agree with current conceptual facilitation-stress models predicting increasing facilitation with abiotic stress. We used our results to design a conceptual model of facilitation along a biotic environmental gradient. Empirical studies are needed to test the applicability of this model. In conclusion, we suggest that current conceptual facilitation models should at least consider the possibility of decreasing facilitation at high levels of stress.
KeywordsCattle grazing Facilitation theory Herbivory Nurse effects Unpalatable plants
We are grateful to the agronomic research station of Agroscope Changins (RAC) for allowing us to use la Petite Ronde as field site and for helping us set up the exclosures. Further, we thank C. Rosat for his help with transplanting the shrubs and trees, F. Freléchoux and R. Smit for their help and advice during this study and M. Pohl for her extensive help with gathering the data. We thank M. Holmgren for improving this manuscript with useful comments. This project was funded by the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Plant Survival of the Swiss National Science Foundation.
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