Ecosystem engineering affects ecosystem functioning in high-Andean landscapes

Abstract

Ecosystem engineers are organisms that change the distribution of materials and energy in the abiotic environment, usually creating and maintaining new habitat patches in the landscape. Such changes in habitat conditions have been widely documented to affect the distributions and performances of other species but up to now no studies have addressed how such effects can impact the biotically driven physicochemical processes associated with these landscapes, or ecosystem functions. Based on the widely accepted positive relationship between species diversity and ecosystem functions, we propose that the effects of ecosystem engineers on other species could have an impact on ecosystem functions via two mutually inclusive mechanisms: (1) by adding new species into landscapes, hence increasing species diversity; and (2) by improving the performances of species already present in the landscape. To test these hypotheses, we focused on the effects of a high-Andean ecosystem engineer, the cushion plant Azorella monantha, by comparing the accumulation of plant biomass and nitrogen fixed in plant tissues as species richness increases in landscapes with and without the engineer species. Our results show that both ecosystem functions increased with species richness in both landscape types, but landscapes including A. monantha cushions reached higher outcomes of plant biomass and nitrogen fixed in plant tissues than landscapes without cushions. Moreover, our results indicate that such positive effects on ecosystem functions could be mediated by the two mechanisms proposed above. Then, given the conspicuousness of ecosystem engineering in nature and its strong influence on species diversity, and given the well-known relationship between species diversity and ecosystem function, we suggest that the application of the conceptual framework proposed herein to other ecosystems would help to advance our understanding of the forces driving ecosystem functioning.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the staff of the La Parva and Valle Nevado ski centers for logistic support provided during the sampling season. We acknowledge the financial support of the project FONDECYT 3060095 (EIB) and the projects FONDAP-FONDECYT 1501-0001 and ICM P05-002 (PAM). Part of this work was conducted while PAM was a Sabbatical Fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a Center funded by the NSF (Grant #DEB-0072909), the University of California, and the Santa Barbara campus. All of the experiments presented in this study comply with the current laws of the country in which they were performed.

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Correspondence to Ernesto I. Badano.

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Communicated by Jon Keeley.

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Appendix S1

. Species from Mt. Franciscano and Mt. Tres Puntas. Species were classified according to the habitat type in which they were found. Cushions: species were only detected within Azorella monantha cushions; open areas: species were only detected in unmodified open areas surrounding cushions; both: species were detected in both habitat types. Absent indicates species not detected on a given mountaintop (doc 60 KB)

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Badano, E.I., Marquet, P.A. Ecosystem engineering affects ecosystem functioning in high-Andean landscapes. Oecologia 155, 821–829 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-007-0953-2

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Keywords

  • Alpine ecology
  • Cushion plants
  • Ecosystem engineers
  • Plant communities
  • Plant ecology