Spatial decoupling of facilitation and competition at the origin of gapped vegetation patterns

Nicolas Barbier, Pierre Couteron, René Lefever, Vincent Deblauwe, Olivier Lejeune
Ecology 2008, 89 (6): 1521-31
Spatially periodic vegetation patterns, forming gaps, bands, labyrinths, or spots, are characteristic of arid and semiarid landscapes. Self-organization models can explain this variety of structures within a unified conceptual framework. All these models are based on the interplay of positive and negative effects of plants on soil water, but they can be divided according to whether they assume the interactions to be mediated by water redistribution through runoff/diffusion or by plants' organs. We carried out a multi-proxy approach of the processes operating in a gapped pattern in southwest Niger dominated by a shrub species. Soil moisture within the root layer was monitored in time and space over one month of the rainy season. Soil water recharge displayed no spatial variation with respect to vegetation cover, but the stock half-life under cover was twice that of bare areas. A kernel of facilitation by the aboveground parts of shrubs was parameterized, and soil water half-life was significantly correlated to the cumulated facilitative effects of shrubs. The kernel range was found to be smaller than the canopy radius (81%). This effect of plants on soil water dynamics, probably through a reduction of evaporation by shading, is shown to be a better explanatory variable than potentially relevant soil and topography parameters. The root systems of five individuals of Combretum micranthum G. Don were excavated. Root density data were used as a proxy to parameterize a kernel function of interplant competition. The range of this kernel was larger than the canopy radius (125%). The facilitation-to-competition range ratio, reflecting the above-to-belowground ratio of plant lateral extent, was smaller than 1 (0.64), a result supporting models assuming that patterning may emerge from an adaptation of plant morphology to aridity and shallow soils by means of an extended lateral root system. Moreover, observed soil water gradients had directions opposite to those assumed by alternative mathematical models based on underground water diffusion. This study contributes to the growing awareness that combined facilitative and competitive plant interactions can induce landscape-scale patterns and shape the two-way feedback loops between environment and vegetation.

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