Plant life history stage and nurse age change the development of ecological networks in an arid ecosystem

10 April 2018

Losapio, Gianalberto; Pugnaire, Francisco; O'Brien, Michael; Schöb, Christian

Understanding how ecological networks are organised over the course of an organism’s lifetime is crucial for predicting the dynamics of interacting populations and communities across temporal scales. However, most studies so far considered only one life history stage at a time, such as adult, when studying networks of interacting species. Therefore, knowledge about how multiple life history stages affect the development and stability of plant–plant association networks is lacking. We measured the understory adult plant community and the soil seed bank across a plant age gradient of the nurse shrub Retama sphaerocarpa in an arid ecosystem in Spain. Using a multilayer network approach, we built adult understory–nurse and seed bank–nurse networks and analysed how network nestedness, species’ role, and species specificity varied between them and with nurse plant age. We found that seed bank and adult understory networks changed depending on nurse plant age in two different ways. With increasing nurse plant age, adult understory networks became significantly more nested than seed bank networks. The nested architecture of seed bank networks was therefore a poor predictor of adult understory network nestedness. The contribution and specificity of species to network nestedness increased with increasing nurse plant age more in the adult understory than in seed bank networks, despite high species turnover. Our data show that life history and ontogeny affect the development of plant–plant association networks. Niche construction and environmental filtering along nurse ontogeny seem pivotal mechanisms structuring adult understory networks while the assembly of seed bank networks seems rather stochastic. We highlight the importance of mature plant communities for maintaining rare species populations and supporting the stability of ecological communities through time.