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1.  Plant Trait Variation along an Altitudinal Gradient in Mediterranean High Mountain Grasslands: Controlling the Species Turnover Effect 
PLoS ONE  2015;10(3):e0118876.
Assessing changes in plant functional traits along gradients is useful for understanding the assembly of communities and their response to global and local environmental drivers. However, these changes may reflect the effects of species composition (i.e. composition turnover), species abundance (i.e. species interaction), and intra-specific trait variability (i.e. species plasticity). In order to determine the relevance of the latter, trait variation can be assessed under minimal effects of composition turnover. Nine sampling sites were established along an altitudinal gradient in a Mediterranean high mountain grassland community with low composition turnover (Madrid, Spain; 1940 m–2419 m). Nine functional traits were also measured for ten individuals of around ten plant species at each site, for a total of eleven species across all sites. The relative importance of different sources of variability (within/between site and intra-/inter-specific functional diversity) and trait variation at species and community level along the considered gradients were explored. We found a weak individual species response to altitude and other environmental variables although in some cases, individuals were smaller and leaves were thicker at higher elevations. This lack of species response was most likely due to greater within- than between-site species variation. At the community level, inter-specific functional diversity was generally greater than the intra-specific component except for traits linked to leaf element content (leaf carbon content, leaf nitrogen content, δ13C and δ15N). Inter-specific functional diversity decreased with lower altitude for four leaf traits (specific leaf area, leaf dry matter content, δ13C and δ15N), suggesting trait convergence between species at lower elevations, where water shortage may have a stronger environmental filtering effect than colder temperatures at higher altitudes. Our results suggest that, within a vegetation type encompassing various environmental gradients, both, changes in species abundance and intra-specific trait variability adjust for the community functional response to environmental changes.
PMCID: PMC4361585  PMID: 25774532
2.  Plant Trait Assembly Affects Superiority of Grazer's Foraging Strategies in Species-Rich Grasslands 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(7):e69800.
Current plant – herbivore interaction models and experiments with mammalian herbivores grazing plant monocultures show the superiority of a maximizing forage quality strategy (MFQ) over a maximizing intake strategy (MI). However, there is a lack of evidence whether grazers comply with the model predictions under field conditions.
We assessed diet selection of sheep (Ovis aries) using plant functional traits in productive mesic vs. low-productivity dry species-rich grasslands dominated by resource-exploitative vs. resource-conservative species respectively. Each grassland type was studied in two replicates for two years. We investigated the first grazing cycle in a set of 288 plots with a diameter of 30 cm, i.e. the size of sheep feeding station. In mesic grasslands, high plot defoliation was associated with community weighted means of leaf traits referring to high forage quality, i.e. low leaf dry matter content (LDMC) and high specific leaf area (SLA), with a high proportion of legumes and the most with high community weighted mean of forage indicator value. In contrast in dry grasslands, high community weighted mean of canopy height, an estimate of forage quantity, was the best predictor of plot defoliation. Similar differences in selection on forage quality vs. quantity were detected within plots. Sheep selected plants with higher forage indicator values than the plot specific community weighted mean of forage indicator value in mesic grasslands whereas taller plants were selected in dry grasslands. However, at this scale sheep avoided legumes and plants with higher SLA, preferred plants with higher LDMC while grazing plants with higher forage indicator values in mesic grasslands.
Our findings indicate that MFQ appears superior over MI only in habitats with a predominance of resource-exploitative species. Furthermore, plant functional traits (LDMC, SLA, nitrogen fixer) seem to be helpful correlates of forage quality only at the community level.
PMCID: PMC3724891  PMID: 23922805
3.  Testing the Stress-Gradient Hypothesis at the Roof of the World: Effects of the Cushion Plant Thylacospermum caespitosum on Species Assemblages 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(1):e53514.
Many cushion plants ameliorate the harsh environment they inhabit in alpine ecosystems and act as nurse plants, with significantly more species growing within their canopy than outside. These facilitative interactions seem to increase with the abiotic stress, thus supporting the stress-gradient hypothesis. We tested this prediction by exploring the association pattern of vascular plants with the dominant cushion plant Thylacospermum caespitosum (Caryophyllaceae) in the arid Trans-Himalaya, where vascular plants occur at one of the highest worldwide elevational limits. We compared plant composition between 1112 pair-plots placed both inside cushions and in surrounding open areas, in communities from cold steppes to subnival zones along two elevational gradients (East Karakoram: 4850–5250 m and Little Tibet: 5350–5850 m). We used PERMANOVA to assess differences in species composition, Friedman-based permutation tests to determine individual species habitat preferences, species-area curves to assess whether interactions are size-dependent and competitive intensity and importance indices to evaluate plant-plant interactions. No indications for net facilitation were found along the elevation gradients. The open areas were not only richer in species, but not a single species preferred to grow exclusively inside cushions, while 39–60% of 56 species detected had a significant preference for the habitat outside cushions. Across the entire elevation range of T. caespitosum, the number and abundance of species were greater outside cushions, suggesting that competitive rather than facilitative interactions prevail. This was supported by lower soil nutrient contents inside cushions, indicating a resource preemption, and little thermal amelioration at the extreme end of the elevational gradient. We attribute the negative associations to competition for limited resources, a strong environmental filter in arid high-mountain environment selecting the stress-tolerant species that do not rely on help from other plants during their life cycle and to the fact the cushions do not provide a better microhabitat to grow in.
PMCID: PMC3542354  PMID: 23326446
4.  Cushions of Thylacospermum caespitosum (Caryophyllaceae) do not facilitate other plants under extreme altitude and dry conditions in the north-west Himalayas 
Annals of Botany  2011;108(3):567-573.
Cushion plants are commonly considered as keystone nurse species that ameliorate the harsh conditions they inhabit in alpine ecosystems, thus facilitating other species and increasing alpine plant biodiversity. A literature search resulted in 25 key studies showing overwhelming facilitative effects of different cushion plants and hypothesizing greater facilitation with increased environmental severity (i.e. higher altitude and/or lower rainfall). At the same time, emerging ecological theory alongside the cushion-specific literature suggests that facilitation might not always occur under extreme environmental conditions, and especially under high altitude and dryness.
To assess these hypotheses, possible nursing effects of Thylacospermum caespitosum (Caryophyllaceae) were examined at extremely high altitude (5900 m a.s.l.) and in dry conditions (precipitation <100 mm year−1) in Eastern Ladakh, Trans-Himalaya. This is, by far, the highest site, and the second driest, at which the effects of cushions have been studied so far.
Key Results
In accordance with the theoretical predictions, no nursing effects of T. caespitosum on other alpine plants were detected. The number and abundance of species were greater outside cushions than within and on the edge of cushions. None of the 13 species detected was positively associated with cushions, while nine of them were negatively associated. Plant diversity increased with the size of the area sampled outside cushions, but no species–area relationship was found within cushions.
The results support the emerging theoretical prediction of restricted facilitative effects under extreme combinations of cold and dryness, integrating these ideas in the context of the ecology of cushion plants. This evidence suggests that cases of missing strong facilitation are likely to be found in other extreme alpine conditions.
PMCID: PMC3158696  PMID: 21813564
Alpine plants; Thylacospermum caespitosum; Caryophyllaceae; biodiversity; competition and facilitation; stress; nurse plant; Tibet; Ladakh; Himalaya

Results 1-4 (4)