Community-level facilitation by macroalgal foundation species peaks at an intermediate level of environmental stress
In rocky intertidal habitats, abiotic stress due to desiccation and thermal extremes increases with elevation because of tides. A study in Atlantic Canada showed that, at low elevations where conditions are benign due to the brief low tides, fucoid algal canopies (Ascophyllum nodosum and Fucus spp.) do not affect the structure of benthic communities. However, at middle and high elevations, where low tides last longer, fucoid canopies limit abiotic extremes and increase the richness (number of invertebrate and algal species, except fucoids) of benthic communities. Using the data from that study, this paper compares the intensity of facilitation and its importance (relative to all other sources of variation in richness) between middle and high elevations, which represent intermediate and high stress, respectively. Facilitation intensity was calculated as the percent increase in benthic richness between quadrats with low and high canopy cover, while the importance of facilitation was calculated as the percentage of variation in richness explained by canopy cover. Data for 689 quadrats spanning 350 km of coastline were used. Both the intensity and importance of facilitation were greater at middle elevations than at high elevations. As canopies do not affect benthic communities at low elevations, this study suggests that the facilitation-stress relationship at the community level is unimodal for this marine system. Such a pattern was found for some terrestrial systems dominated by canopy-forming plants. Thus, it might be ubiquitous in nature and, as further studies refine it, it might help to predict community-level facilitation depending on environmental stress.
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