Facilitation of the non-native annual plant Mesembryanthemum crystallinum (Aizoaceae) by the endemic cactus Eulychnia acida (Cactaceae) in the Atacama Desert.
The Atacama Desert is one of the most stressful environments worldwide and represents a strong barrier for the establishment of native and non-native plants. In this study, we report the establishment of a non-native annual plant through facilitation by a native endemic cactus in a relatively undisturbed coastal area in north-central Chile. Soil collected under Eulychnia acida contained more available nutrients (N, P and K), water, and soluble salts than soils collected away from E. acida. Co-occurrence analyses showed a strong positive spatial association (facilitation) between the native cactus E. acida and the non-native annual, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum. The aboveground biomass of M. crystallinum individuals was 4-fold higher under the influence of E. acida. Native halophytes occasionally shared the cactus understory with the non-native species, but dominant native shrubs and perennial herbs did not co-occur with the cactus at scales of 1 and 4 m2. All these results support facilitation of the native cactus on the non-native herb. The combination of direct and indirect positive effects could explain the assembly of the non-native annual plant in these undisturbed areas of the Atacama Desert and have major implications on M. crystallinum capacity to colonize new areas.