Diversity in communities is determined by species’ ability to coexist with each other and to overcome environmental stress that may act as an environmental filter. Niche differentiation (ND) results in stronger intra- than interspecific competition and promotes coexistence. Because stress affects interactions, the strength of ND may change along stress gradients. A greater diversity of plant growth forms has been observed in stressful habitats, such as deserts and alpine regions, suggesting greater ND when stress is strong. We tested the hypothesis that niche differences and environmental filters become stronger with stress.
In a semiarid grassland in southern Mexico, we sowed six annual species in the field along a hydric stress gradient. Plants were grown alone (without interactions), with conspecific neighbors (intraspecific interactions) or with heterospecific neighbors (interspecific interactions). We analyzed how the ratio of intra- to interspecific competition changed along the gradient to assess how water availability determines the strength of ND. We also determined if hydric stress represented an environmental filter.
We observed stronger intra- than interspecific competition, especially where hydric stress was greater. Thus, we found ND in at least some portion of the gradient for all but one species. Some species were hindered by stress, but others were favored by it perhaps because it eliminates soil pathogens. Although strong ND was slightly more frequent with stress, our species sample was small and there were exceptions to the general pattern, so further research is needed to establish if this is a widespread phenomenon in nature.