Modelling the niche space of desert annuals needs to include positive interactions

25 July 2017

Filazzola, Alessandro; Sotomayor, Diego; Lortie, Christopher

The niche is a necessary consideration when estimating habitable area and geographic range of a species. Modellers often examine the fundamental niche and the environmental requirements for plant species, ignoring interactions among species. In deserts, positive plant interactions are important drivers of biodiversity and structure communities through many mechanistic pathways including modifying environmental conditions. Thus, we tested the hypothesis that desert shrubs increase the geographical extent of some annual species because, through modifying the microclimate, they match the niche requirements of beneficiary species. We used the database of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to construct MaxEnt species distribution models (SDM) with and without reported benefactor species within the Mojave Desert in California. We chose 20 annual species to be modeled including 10 species that had been previously reported in the literature as being facilitated (beneficiary) and 10 that had no record of being facilitated (unreported). Beneficiary annuals co-occurred significantly more with benefactor shrubs than the unreported annual species. The inclusion of shrubs into SDMs significantly improved model predictability and geographic range for all the beneficiary annual species, but not for the unreported annual species. Thus, positive interactions are species specific and it is possible to determine annual species dependency on benefactor shrubs at the regional scale. The co-occurrence of benefactor shrubs and annual species can be used as a proxy for facilitation and recent developments in SDM techniques encourage the inclusion of biotic interactions. Species distribution models should include estimates of facilitation because biotic interactions determine the niche of species and can have implications with a changing climate.