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Spatial patterns in cushion-dominated plant communities of the high Andes of central Chile: How frequent are positive associations?

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Abstract:

Question: In stressful abiotic environments positive plant interaction is expected to be a frequent and an important process driving community composition and structure. In the high Andes in central Chile, the cushion plant Azorella madreporica dominates plant communities and appears to benefit the assemblage of species that grows within it. However, there are also many other species that grow outside this nurse cushion plant, which may or may not interact with this species. What is the prevailing type of spatial associations among the plant species that are not growing inside the nurse plant? What is the type of interactions between cushion plants and those species growing outside them?

Location: Molina River basin (33°20' S, 70°16' W, 3600 m a.s.l.), in the Andes of central Chile, ca. 50 km east of Santiago.

Methods: Two accurate mapping plots of individual plants of different species were located at two summits (Franciscano and Tres Puntas sites). The spatial distributions and associations between species growing outside cushions and within cushions at each site were estimated by point-pattern analyses using the univariate and bivariate transformations of Ripley's K-functions.

Results: We found both positive and, especially, negative spatial associations (8 out of 12 species in Franciscano site) between A. madreporica cushions and plants growing outside them. However, most of the species showed positive spatial associations among them. The variation in spatial association was site-specific and also depended on the type of plants involved. Adesmia spp., the second most abundant non-cushion species, displayed negative associations with cushions and positive associations with other species growing outside cushions.

Conclusions: Our study suggests very complex interactions among species, which ranged from positive to negative, and are also affected by abiotic environmental conditions.
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