The only trees in most of the Negev desert are 3 native Acacia species. We tested the hypothesis that they act as keystone species as a result of the improved soil conditions under their canopies. Furthermore, because many Acacia populations suffer high levels of mortality due to water stress, we tested whether trees in high mortality populations had diminished effects on plant species and soil quality under their canopies. We show that plant species diversity beneath the tree canopies is higher than in the surrounding areas. There was also a clearly identifiable suite of species with higher occurrence under the trees. Plant species composition differed significantly between high and low mortality sites. However, there was higher species diversity in high mortality sites and under trees with higher water stress. Soil nutrient content was higher under the trees than in the open areas, especially under larger trees and trees with higher water status. The results indicate that there is a combination of positive and negative effects of Acacia trees on the under-canopy environment, which may include positive effects of higher soil nutrients and a negative influence of higher soil salinity.
Abbreviations: MANCOVA = Multiple Analysis of Covariance; PAR = Photosynthetically active radiation; PCA = Principal Components Analysis.
Nomenclature: Feinbrun-Dothan et al. (1991).