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Neighbor identity affects growth and survival of Mediterranean plants under recurrent drought


The increasing intensity and frequency of droughts predicted for the Mediterranean basin with ongoing climate change will impact plant communities and ecosystem functioning. This study investigated the effect of severe recurrent droughts and the role of the neighbor plant identity on the growth and survival of three abundant and co-existing species of a typical Mediterranean shrubland. Two juvenile plants, either of the same species or in all possible combinations of the two woody species Quercus coccifera and Cistus albidus and the perennial grass species Brachypodium retusum were grown together in rhizotrons under controlled watering regimes for two years. Compared to a treatment with only one drought cycle, three successive droughts reduced the relative growth rates (RGR) of shoots and roots in B. retusum, but not in woody species, and increased the mortality of the woody species, but not that of the grass. The survival of C. albidus and of B. retusum, but not of Q. coccifera, increased when the neighbor individual was a different species than when it was the same species. Our data suggest that both species composition and frequency of drought events will impact the dynamics of plant communities in Mediterranean shrublands under ongoing climate change. The abundance of dehydration sensitive woody species will likely decrease under more frequent drought events at the expense of dehydration-tolerant grass species, resulting in potentially strong changes in the functioning of these ecosystems.

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We are grateful to David Degueldre, Jeremy Devaux, Pauline Durbin, and Thierry Mathieu from the platform “Terrain d’expérimentations” (supported by the LabEx CeMEB and ANR "Investissements d'avenir" program (ANR-10-LABX-04-01)) for their continued support and help in the planning and maintenance of the experiment and help during plant harvest. We also thank Catherine Roumet and Pascal Chapon for the technical support and advice, and Nathalie Fromin for helpful comments during writing. Funding was provided by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (contract "ANR-09-CEP-007") through the project CLIMED. A. SHIHAN received a PhD Grant from University of Aleppo, Syria.

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AS and SH conceived and designed the experiment. AS performed the experiment and analyzed the data. AS, SH, FV wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ammar Shihan.

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The experiment is among the first applying multiple droughts to plants in multi-species combinations, and tracking responses to mortality. The results reveal that the stressful abiotic effects of drought are modified depending on biotic interactions with neighbors, creating a set of complex feedbacks that determine the probability of mortality. Taken together, the study provides better insight into the impacts of future climate change on ecosystem productivity and predicted shifts in plant species assemblages.

Communicated by Louis Stephen Santiago.

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Shihan, A., Volaire, F. & Hättenschwiler, S. Neighbor identity affects growth and survival of Mediterranean plants under recurrent drought. Oecologia 194, 555–569 (2020).

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  • Climate change
  • Recurrent drought
  • Survival
  • Biomass allocation
  • Inter- vs. intra-specific competition