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Some neighbors are better than others: variation in associational effects among plants in an old field community


Mutz, Jessie et al. (2022), Some neighbors are better than others: variation in associational effects among plants in an old field community, Dryad, Dataset,


Consumer-resource interactions are often influenced by other species in the community, such as when neighboring plants increase or reduce herbivory to a focal plant species (known as associational effects). The many studies on associational effects between a focal plant and some neighbor have shown that these effects can vary greatly in strength and direction. But because almost all of these studies measure associational effects from only one or two neighbor species, we know little about the actual range of associational effects that a plant species might encounter in a natural setting. This makes it difficult to determine how important effects of neighbors are in real field settings, and how associational effects might interact with competition and other processes to influence plant community composition. 

In this study, we used a field experiment with a focal species, Solanum carolinense, and 11 common neighbor species to investigate how associational effects vary among many co-occurring neighbor species and to test whether factors such as neighbor plant apparency, phylogenetic proximity to the focal species, or effects on focal plant defense traits help to explain interspecific variation in associational effect strength. 

We found that some neighbor species affected S. carolinense damage and attack by specialist herbivores, but associational effects of most neighbors were weak. Associational effects increased herbivore attack on average earlier in the season (associational susceptibility) and reduced herbivore attack on average later in the season (associational resistance) relative to S. carolinense in monoculture. 

We found some evidence that a neighbor’s associational effect was related to its biomass and phylogenetic proximity to the focal species. While neighbor species differed in their effects on physical leaf traits of focal plants (trichome density, specific leaf area, leaf toughness), these traits did not appear to mediate the effects of neighbors on focal plant herbivory. 

Synthesis: Our results suggest that the distribution of associational effect strengths in natural communities are similar to those observed for other interaction types, and that multiple mechanisms are likely acting simultaneously to shape associational effects of different neighbor species.


National Science Foundation, Award: DEB-1456237