Positive interactions have been hypothesized to influence plant community dynamics and species invasions. However, their prevalence and importance relative to negative interactions remain unclear, but are fundamentally important for both theoretical and applied ecology. We examined pairwise biotic interactions using over 50 years of successional data to assess the prevalence of positive interactions and their effects on each focal species (either native or exotic). We found that positive interactions were widespread and the relative frequency of positive and negative interactions varied with establishment stage and between native and exotic species. Specifically, positive interactions were more frequent during early establishment and less frequent at later stages. Positive interactions involving native species were more frequent and stronger than those between exotic species, reducing the impact of invasional meltdown on succession. Our study highlights the role of positive native interactions in shielding communities from biological invasion and enhancing the potential for long-term resilience.
1. The dissimilarity and hierarchy of trait values that characterize niche and fitness differences, respectively, have been increasingly applied to infer mechanisms driving community assembly and to explain species co-occurrence patterns. Here, we predict that limiting similarity should result in the spatial segregation of functionally similar species, while functionally similar species will be more likely to co-occur together either due to environmental filtering or competitive exclusion of inferior competitors (hereafter hierarchical competition). 2. We used a fully mapped 50-ha subtropical forest plot in southern China to explore how pairwise spatial associations were influenced by trait dissimilarity and hierarchy between species in order to gain insight into assembly mechanisms. We assessed pairwise spatial associations using two summary statistics of spatial point patterns at different spatial scales and compared the effects of trait dissimilarity and trait hierarchy of different functional traits on the interspecific spatial associations. These comparisons allow us to disentangle the effects of limiting similarity, environmental filtering and hierarchical competition on species co-occurrence. 3. We found that trait dissimilarity was generally negatively correlated with interspecific spatial associations, meaning that species with similar trait values were more likely to co-occur together and thus supporting environmental filtering or hierarchical competition. We further found that leaf area, wood density and maximum height had stronger trait hierarchy effects on the pairwise spatial associations relative to their corresponding trait dissimilarity effects, which suggests that hierarchical competition played a more (or at least equally) important role in structuring our forest community compared to environmental filtering. 4. This study employed a novel method to disentangle the relative importance of multiple assembly mechanisms in structuring co-occurrence patterns, especially the mechanisms of environmental filtering and hierarchical competition, which lead to indistinguishable co-occurrence patterns. This study also reinforced the importance of trait hierarchy rather than trait dissimilarity in driving neighborhood competition.