Spatial ecology of a small desert shrub on adjacent geological substrates

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1. Spatial pattern analyses were used to generate hypotheses about the processes that shape the structure of a plant community in the Mojave Desert of North America, with a focus on the semi-shrub Ambrosia dumosa. We analysed spatial distributions and sizes of this species relative to other semi-shrubs, shrubs and annuals, and the relationships between spatial patterns and abiotic and biotic habitat characteristics. 2. The analyses were based on maps of sample plots placed along a transect spanning two adjacent geological substrates: aeolian sand and gravelly, sandy to loamy alluvium. Of these two substrates, sand supported higher total biomasses of Ambrosia and of all woody perennials, while alluvium supported on average higher biomasses of winter annuals. 3. Annuals and seedlings of Ambrosia were much more strongly aggregated with Ambrosia canopies on sand than on alluvium, suggesting that these small plants were more strongly facilitated by Ambrosia on sand than on alluvium. 4. Ambrosia semi-shrubs were spatially segregated on sand but aggregated on alluvium, and the degree of segregation on sand increased with the total above-ground biomass of Ambrosia per unit area, indicating that negative interactions between Ambrosia plants were stronger in more productive habitats. Canopy sizes of Ambrosia in all mapped plots increased with distance to the nearest conspecific neighbour, which suggests that neighbour interactions negatively affected plant sizes. 5. Ambrosia plants on sand were spatially aggregated with Acamptopappus sphaerocephalus semi-shrubs, suggesting that at least one of these species may benefit from the association. Ambrosia plants were spatially segregated from Larrea tridentata shrubs on both substrates, possibly due to negative effects of Larrea roots on Ambrosia roots reported in previous studies. 6. Subtle differences in substrate characteristics were correlated with strong differences in the spatial distribution of Ambrosia plants relative to their neighbours, which suggests that edaphic conditions may affect the spatial structure of the community by modifying complex positive and negative interactions between neighbouring plants.

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Journal of Ecology

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