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Incorporating biotic factors in species distribution modeling: are interactions with soil microbes important?

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It is increasingly recognized that species distributions are driven by both abiotic factors and biotic interactions. Despite much recent work incorporating competition, predation, and mutualism into species distribution models (SDMs), the focus has been confined to aboveground macroscopic interactions. Biotic interactions between plants and soil microbial communities are understudied as potentially important drivers of plant distributions. Some soil bacteria promote plant growth by cycling nutrients, while others are pathogenic; thus they have a high potential for influencing plant occurrence. We investigated the influence of soil bacterial clades on the distributions of bryophytes and 12 vascular plant species in a high elevation talus‐field ecosystem in the Rocky Mountain Front Range, Colorado, USA. We used an information‐theoretic criterion (AICc) modeling approach to compare SDMs with the following different sets of predictors: abiotic variables, abiotic variables and other plant abundances, abiotic variables and soil bacteria clade relative abundances, and a full model with abiotic factors, plant abundances, and bacteria relative abundances. We predicted that bacteria would influence plant distributions both positively and negatively, and that these interactions would improve prediction of plant species distributions. We found that inclusion of either plant or bacteria biotic predictors generally improved the fit, deviance explained, and predictive power of the SDMs, and for the majority of the species, adding information on both other plants and bacteria yielded the best model. Interactions between the modeled species and biotic predictors were both positive and negative, suggesting the presence of competition, parasitism, and facilitation. While our results indicate that plant–plant co‐occurrences are a stronger driver of plant distributions than plant–bacteria co‐occurrences, they also show that bacteria can explain parts of plant distributions that remain unexplained by abiotic and plant predictors. Our results provide further support for including biotic factors in SDMs, and suggest that belowground factors be considered as well.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2016

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