Floristic changes in alpine plant communities induced by the cushion plant Azorella madreporica (Apiaceae) in the Andes of central Chile
It is well known that the number of plant species associated with nurse plants increases with elevation. However, studies conducted so far have largely ignored the effect of nurse plants on other community attributes, such as the species abundances, diversity and evenness. Moreover, changes in these community attributes along environmental gradients have also been seldom examined. The present study evaluates the effect of the cushion plant Azorella madrepórica (Apiaceae) on species richness, species abundance, diversity and evenness of vascular plants at two elevations in the Andes of central Chile. Theoretically, the impact of this nurse cushion plant on these community attributes should be grater at a higher elevation. Results showed that the proportion of plant species associated with cushion plants increases with elevation, and the abundance of some species is also greater within cushions than on bare ground. Although the proportion of species growing within cushions increased with elevation, diversity and evenness were higher on bare ground. This is due to some few species that attained very high densities within cushions, generating assemblages highly dominated by some few species. Ordination analyses indicated differences in species assemblages within and outside A. madrepórica at the higher elevation. Therefore, the influence of cushion plants on community structure changes with elevation. Accordingly, we suggest that attributes other than species richness must be included in future studies in order to analyze the impact of nurse species on community structure along environmental gradients.