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Title: Physiological responses to light explain competition and facilitation in a tree diversity experiment

Ecologists often invoke interspecific facilitation to help explain positive biodiversity–ecosystem function relationships in plant communities, but seldom test how it occurs. One mechanism through which one species may facilitate another is by ameliorating abiotic stress. Physiological experiments show that a chronic excess of light can cause stress that depresses carbon assimilation. If shading by a plant's neighbours reduces light stress enough, it may facilitate that plant's growth. If light is instead most often a limiting factor for photosynthesis, shading may have an adverse, competitive effect.

In a temperate tree diversity experiment, we measured stem growth rates and photosynthetic physiology in broadleaf trees across a gradient of light availability imposed by their neighbours. At the extremes, trees experienced nearly full sun (monoculture), or were shaded by nearby fast‐growing conifers (shaded biculture).

Most species had slower growth rates with larger neighbours, implying a net competitive effect. On the other hand, the two most shade‐tolerant species (Tilia americanaandAcer negundo) and the most shade‐intolerant one (Betula papyrifera) had faster stem growth rates with larger neighbours. The two shade‐tolerant species had the greatest increases in photoinhibition (reduced dark‐acclimatedFv/Fm) across the gradient of increasing light availability, which suggests they are more vulnerable to chronic light stress. While most species had lower carbon assimilation rates in the shaded biculture treatment,T. americanahad rates up to 25% higher.T. americanaalso dropped its leaves 3–4 weeks earlier in monocultures, curtailing its growing season.

We conclude that although large neighbours can cause light limitation in shade‐intolerant species, they can also increase growth through abiotic stress amelioration in shade‐tolerant species. Finally, in shade‐intolerantB. papyrifera, we find a pattern of stem elongation in trees with larger neighbours, which suggests that a shade avoidance response may account for the apparent positive trend in stem volume.

Synthesis. Both positive and negative species interactions in our experiment can be explained in large part by the photosynthetic responses of trees to the light environment created by their neighbours. We show that photosynthetic physiology can help explain the species interactions that underlie biodiversity–ecosystem function relationships. The insights that ecologists gain by searching for such physiological mechanisms may help us forecast species interactions under environmental change.

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Author(s) / Creator(s):
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Date Published:
Journal Name:
Journal of Ecology
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 2000-2018
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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