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Nurse plants transfer more nitrogen to distantly related species.

ABSTRACT

Plant facilitative interactions enhance co-occurrence between distant relatives, partly due to limited overlap in resource requirements. We propose a different mechanism for the coexistence of distant relatives based on positive interactions of nutrient sharing. Nutrients move between plants following source-sink gradients driven by plant traits that allow these gradients to establish. Specifically, nitrogen (N) concentration gradients can arise from variation in leaf N content across plants species. As many ecologically relevant traits, we hypothesize that leaf N content is phylogenetically conserved and can result in N gradients promoting N transfer among distant relatives. In a Mexican desert community governed by facilitation, we labelled nurse plants (Mimosa luisiana) with (15) N and measured its transfer to 14 other species in the community, spanning the range of phylogenetic distances to the nurse plant. Nurses established steeper N source-sink gradients with distant relatives, increasing (15) N transfer towards these species. Nutrient sharing may provide long-term benefits to facilitated plants and may be an overlooked mechanism maintaining coexistence and increasing the phylogenetic diversity of plant communities. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.