Preprint Review Version 2 Preserved in Portico This version is not peer-reviewed

The Ecology of Plant Interactions: A Giant with Feet of Clay

Version 1 : Received: 21 September 2020 / Approved: 22 September 2020 / Online: 22 September 2020 (10:39:16 CEST)
Version 2 : Received: 14 January 2021 / Approved: 15 January 2021 / Online: 15 January 2021 (12:37:06 CET)
Version 3 : Received: 10 February 2022 / Approved: 17 February 2022 / Online: 17 February 2022 (19:37:10 CET)

How to cite: Cabal, C.; Martínez-García, R.; Valladares, F. The Ecology of Plant Interactions: A Giant with Feet of Clay. Preprints 2020, 2020090520. Cabal, C.; Martínez-García, R.; Valladares, F. The Ecology of Plant Interactions: A Giant with Feet of Clay. Preprints 2020, 2020090520.


Ecologists use the net biotic interactions among plants as a major factor to predict other ecosystem features, such as species diversity, community structure, or plant atmospheric carbon uptake. By adopting this approach, ecologists have built a giant body of theory founded on observational evidence. However, growing evidence points out that this may not be the right approach. The literature addressing the biophysical mechanisms underlying the plant interactions is much scarcer. A rising number of scientists claim the need for a mechanistic understanding of plant interactions due to the limitations that a phenomenological approach raises both in empirical and theoretical studies. Scattered studies have recently taken such a mechanistic approach, but we still lack a general theoretical framework to study mechanistically plant interactions. In this review, we first recapitulate the elementary units of plant interactions, i.e., all the known biophysical processes affected by the presence of an influencing plant and the possible phenotypic responses of plants influenced by those processes. Second, we discuss how a net interaction between two plants emerges from the simultaneous effect of these elementary units. Third, we touch upon the spatial and temporal variability of the net interaction and discuss the links between this variability and the underlying biophysical processes. We conclude by discussing how to integrate these processes into a mechanistic framework for plant interactions that must necessarily focus on the individual scale and explicitly incorporate the spatial structure of the community and environmental factors: the plant interaction models (PIM). A PIM incorporates a pair or few plants interacting with their physical environment so that the biotic interaction is not imposed but emerges from the model. This type of model can provide concise, mechanistic hypotheses to be tested empirically. This review calls for a paradigm shift in the ecology of plant interactions, from the classic species interaction study towards a more mechanistic individual-level approach. It also presents a comprehensive foundation for studying the mechanisms underpinning the net interaction between two plants.


Biotic interactions; Ecological modeling; Plant facilitation; Plant community ecology; Spatial ecology; Theoretical ecology.


Biology and Life Sciences, Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics

Comments (1)

Comment 1
Received: 15 January 2021
Commenter: Ciro Cabal
Commenter's Conflict of Interests: Author
Comment: New version includes majorly only changes in presentation, text style, and gramar. No major conceptual or content changes have been implemented.
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