Chozas, S., Chefaoui, R.M., Correia, O., Santos, A.M.C. & Hortal, J. (2023) Geographical shifts in the successional dynamics of inland dune shrub communities. Ecology and Evolution, 13, e9828. doi:10.1002/ece3.9828

Species’ environmental requirements and large-scale spatial and evolutionary processes determine the structure and composition of local communities. However, ecological interactions also have major effects on community assembly at landscape and local scales. We evaluate whether two xerophytic shrub communities occurring in SW Portugal follow constrained ecological assembly dynamics throughout large geographical extents, or their composition is rather driven by species’ individualistic responses to environmental and macroecological constraints. Inland dune xerophytic shrub communities were characterized in 95 plots. Then, we described the main gradients of vegetation composition and assessed the relevance of biotic interactions. We also characterized the habitat suitability of the dominant species, Stauracanthus genistoides, and Ulex australis, to map the potential distribution of the xerophytic shrub communities. Finally, we examined the relationships between the vegetation gradients and a broad set of explanatory variables to identify the relative importance of each factor driving changes in community composition. We found that xerophytic shrubs follow uniform successional patterns throughout the whole geographical area studied, but each community responds differently to the main environmental gradients in each region. Soil organic matter is the main determinant of community variations in the northern region, Setúbal Peninsula, whereas aridity is so in the South/South-Western region. In contrast, in the central region, Comporta, the variation between S. genistoides and U. australis communities is explained mainly by aridity and temperature seasonality, followed by the individualistic responses of the dominant species and soil organic matter. Overall, these results indicate that, the relative importance of the main factors causing community-level responses varies according to regional processes and the suitability of the environmental conditions for the dominant species in these communities. These responses are also determined by intrinsic community mechanisms that result in a high degree of similarity in the gradient-driven community stages in different regions.