A meta-analysis of plant facilitation in coastal dune systems: responses, regions, and research gaps

PeerJ. 2015 Feb 12:3:e768. doi: 10.7717/peerj.768. eCollection 2015.


Empirical studies in salt marshes, arid, and alpine systems support the hypothesis that facilitation between plants is an important ecological process in severe or 'stressful' environments. Coastal dunes are both abiotically stressful and frequently disturbed systems. Facilitation has been documented, but the evidence to date has not been synthesized. We did a systematic review with meta-analysis to highlight general research gaps in the study of plant interactions in coastal dunes and examine if regional and local factors influence the magnitude of facilitation in these systems. The 32 studies included in the systematic review were done in coastal dunes located in 13 countries around the world but the majority was in the temperate zone (63%). Most of the studies adopt only an observational approach to make inferences about facilitative interactions, whereas only 28% of the studies used both observational and experimental approaches. Among the factors we tested, only geographic region mediates the occurrence of facilitation more broadly in coastal dune systems. The presence of a neighbor positively influenced growth and survival in the tropics, whereas in temperate and subartic regions the effect was neutral for both response variables. We found no evidence that climatic and local factors, such as life-form and life stage of interacting plants, affect the magnitude of facilitation in coastal dunes. Overall, conclusions about plant facilitation in coastal dunes depend on the response variable measured and, more broadly, on the geographic region examined. However, the high variability and the limited number of studies, especially in tropical region, indicate we need to be cautious in the generalization of the conclusions. Anyway, coastal dunes provide an important means to explore topical issues in facilitation research including context dependency, local versus regional drivers of community structure, and the importance of gradients in shaping the outcome of net interactions.

Keywords: Coastal sand dunes; Gradients; Life-forms; MAP; NDVI; Net interactions; Plant–plant interactions; Positive interactions; Synthesis.

Grants and funding

We acknowledge the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) of Canada for the Emerging Leaders in the Americas (ELAP) Grant and São Paulo Research Foundation for the postdoctoral fellowship (FAPESP project No 2012/09794-7) provided to CT Castanho. This research was also funded by an NSERC Discovery Grant to CJ Lortie. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.