Rob W. Brooker talks with
ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about
this month's Fast Breaking Paper in the field of
Environment & Ecology. The author has also sent
along images of their work.
Article Title: Facilitation in plant communities:
the past, the present, and the future
RW, et al.
Journal: J ECOL
Year: JAN 2008
* Macaulay Land Use Res Inst, Craigiebuckler AB15 8QH,
* Macaulay Land Use Res Inst, Craigiebuckler AB15 8QH,
(addresses have been truncated)
Why do you think your paper is highly
The paper focuses on facilitative (i.e., beneficial) plant-plant
interactions. Over the last 10 to 15 years, this topic has received
increasing interest in the field of plant ecology, and facilitative
interactions are now recognized as important processes in many plant
communities, particularly those in more severe environments.
Although there were a number of synthesis papers in this field in the
mid-late 90s, things have progressed rapidly since then. I think that this
paper has been a major help to researchers both working in and interested
in this field in that it summarizes recent research developments—it's
a good place to go to get an overview of what's been happening. This also
makes it a valuable resource for students.
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or
synthesis of knowledge?
As mentioned above, the synthesis of recent knowledge is new. In addition
the paper was developed from a European Science Foundation (ESF)-funded
workshop in Arcachon in southwestern France in 2007, which had been
organized by Richard Michalet of the University of Bordeaux (France), where
we had the opportunity to consider topics which had not previously been
discussed in relation to this field, for example evolutionary modelling and
facilitation. We also used both the workshop and synthesis paper as an
opportunity to look forward and explore which way this field is going. I
hope this has also made it a useful starting point for sparking off new
Would you summarize the significance of your paper in
The paper reviews current understanding in the field of positive plant
interactions, i.e., interactions where one plant has a beneficial effect on
its neighbors. Classic examples of facilitation are nurse plant effects in
deserts, where plants capable of withstanding the severe desert environment
provide conditions suitable for the growth of other species. The paper
covers a range of topics related to such interactions, including the way in
which plant interactions change along environmental gradients, (i.e.
whether facilitation gets more important as the environment gets harsher),
and the way in which facilitation might drive the evolution of plants or
control how they respond to climate change. We also tried to set out
targets for future research—areas of the field that we think would be
exciting to examine and might be useful as starting points for new work.
How did you become involved in this research, and were there any
problems along the way?
My Ph.D. supervisor, Terry Callaghan, introduced me to the subject when I
was doing my Ph.D. in Arctic Ecology at Sheffield University. I have also
benefited hugely from collaborative links with, amongst many, Ray Callaway,
and an international group of like-minded researchers which has somehow
become known collectively as the "Alpine Pals" (see photo).
This research is basic plant community ecology, and in many cases have been
pursued using simple techniques and experimental approaches such as
neighbor removal experiments. Furthermore (direct) facilitation is unlikely
to be a key process in many of the plant communities in the UK—or at
least its role is not as obvious as in alpine or desert systems. This has
made it tricky to get funding for this work in the UK in an already highly
competitive environment. Working with the "Pals" and other collaborators
has enabled me to keep pursuing and developing these ideas. I am very
grateful to them for the opportunities which our collaborations have
Where do you see your research leading in the future?
I am currently heavily involved in organizing the 2009 British Ecological
Society Symposium on Facilitation in Plant Communities, which will be held
in Aberdeen, Scotland in April. This will be the first open international
meeting on this topic, and we expect it to be a highly stimulating and
exciting event. At the same time I am working on a number of collaborative
studies with the "Alpine Pals" and other research colleagues, trying to
understand the context specificity of plant interactions—particularly
their changing role along environmental gradients—and their
consequences for plant evolution and plant community responses to climate
Do you foresee any social or political implications for your
The main social implication that I can see is the long-term goal of better
understanding the processes that regulate biodiversity in order to help
manage and conserve it.
Dr. Rob W. Brooker
The Macaulay Institute
Aberdeen, UK Web ¦ Web
The Alpine Pals (an international team of scientists working on
alpine ecology in over 10 countries and on four continents) at work
measuring facilitation in cushion plant communities in the Torres del Paine
National Park, Chile, in January 2009 (Fieldwork.jpg). This fieldwork is
part of a global study of the biodiversity impacts of cushion plants in
alpine systems being directed by Lohengrin Cavieres (University of
Concpecion, Chile) and Ray Callaway (University of Montana, USA). The goal
is to use mechanistic, rather than observation-driven, approaches to
predict the effects of climate change on the diversity and composition of
Click for an even larger view.