Positive interactions in plant communities and the individualistic-continuum concept
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The individualistic nature of communities is held as a fundamental ecological tenet by many ecologists. The empirical rationale for the individualistic hypothesis is largely based on gradient analyses in which plant species are almost always found to be arranged independently of one another in “continua” along environmental gradients. However, continua are correlative patterns and do not identify the processes that determine them, and so they do not necessarily preclude the possibility of interdependent interactions within plant communities. For example, the common occurrence of positive interactions suggests that plant species may not always be distributed independently of each other. If the distributions and abundances of species are enhanced by the presence of other species, their organization is not merely a coincidence of similar adaptation to the abiotic environment. Interpretations of gradient analyses also appear to assume that interactions among species should be similar at all points along environmental axes, and that groups of species should be associated at all points on a gradient if interdependence is to be accepted. However, virtually all types of ecological interactions have been shown to vary with changes in the abiotic environment, and a number of field experiments indicate that positive effects become stronger as abiotic stress increases. Furthermore, interactions among plants have been shown to shift from competition to facilitation along environmental continua. Thus, significant interdependence may occur even when species do not fully overlap in distribution. Higher-order, indirect interactions between animals and plants, and among plants, also suggest that interdependence within communities occurs. Eliminating a species involved in an indirect interaction may not necessarily mean that its beneficiary will be eliminated from a community, but the prospect that the distribution and abundance of any species in a plant community may be positively affected by the effects that other species have on their competitors suggests that communities are organized by much more than “the fluctuating and fortuitous immigration of plants and an equally fluctuating and variable environment” as stated by Henry Gleason. The ubiquity of direct and indirect positive interactions within plant communities provides a strong argument that communities are more interdependent than current theories allow.
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