The effects of foundation species on community assembly: a global study on alpine cushion plant communities

Ecology. 2015 Aug;96(8):2064-9. doi: 10.1890/14-2443.1.


Foundation species can change plant community structure by modulating important ecological processes such as community assembly, yet this topic is poorly understood. In alpine systems, cushion plants commonly act as foundation species by ameliorating local conditions. Here, we analyze diversity patterns of species' assembly within cushions and in adjacent surrounding open substrates (83 sites across five continents) calculating floristic dissimilarity between replicate plots, and using linear models to analyze relationships between microhabitats and species diversity. Floristic dissimilarity did not change across biogeographic regions, but was consistently lower in the cushions than in the open microhabitat. Cushion plants appear to enable recruitment of many relatively stress-intolerant species that otherwise would not establish in these communities, yet the niche space constructed by cushion plants supports a more homogeneous composition of species than the niche space beyond the cushion's influence. As a result, cushion plants support higher α-diversity and a larger species pool, but harbor assemblies with lower β-diversity than open microhabitats. We conclude that habitats with and without dominant foundation species can strongly differ in the processes that drive species recruitment, and thus the relationship between local and regional species diversity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biodiversity*
  • Models, Biological
  • Plants / classification*
  • Soil / chemistry*
  • Water


  • Soil
  • Water