The assembly of a plant network in alpine vegetation

Gianalberto Losapio, Marcelino de la Cruz, Adrián Escudero, Bernhard Schmid & Christian Schöb

The study site in the Swiss Alps (Lämmerenboden, 2300 m a.s.l.). Photo credit:
Gianalberto Losapio.

Plant ecology has always focused on interactions among species within communities. Ecological research has targeted the importance of negative interactions such as competition among plants for resources. But in the last years, there is increasing interest in understanding how plants can cooperate with each other. This is particularly the case in harsh ecosystems like the alpine where some stress-tolerant plants contribute to ameliorating growing conditions for their neighbours. In our study, we analysed the spatial distribution of plants and modelled their associations to test how plant networks are formed and maintained in alpine vegetation. We collected data about the spatial location and the phenotype of thousands of individual plants and analysed them with the state-of-the-art computational model. We found that plant species were highly connected through many positive interactions. Dominant, stress-tolerant species were the most important plants for supporting the plant community network. The plant community network was more cohesive than expected by chance. This study reveals a new class of mechanisms underlying the formation of plant communities and has important implications for understanding the biodiversity of alpine vegetation.

This is a plain language summary for the paper of Losapio et al. published in the Journal of Vegetation Science.

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