Although our biological knowledge regarding cactus species is thorough in many areas, only in recent years have ecologists addressed their demographic behavior. Here we attempt a first review of the present knowledge on cactus demography, including an analysis of the published information on species with different growth forms and life-history traits. Our review shows that cactus distribution ranges are determined by environmental heterogeneity and by species-specific physiological requirements. Temperature extremes may pose latitudinal and altitudinal distribution limits. At a more local scale, soil properties dramatically affect cactus distribution. Most cacti show a clumped spatial distribution pattern, which may be the reflection of a patchy resource distribution within their heterogeneous environments. The association of cacti with nurse plants is another factor that may account for this aggregated distribution. Many cacti grow in association with these perennial nurse plants, particularly during early life-cycle phases. The shade provided by nurse plants results in reduced evapotranspiration and buffered temperatures, which enhance cactus germination and establishment. In some cases a certain degree of specificity has been detected between particular cactus species and certain nurse plants. Yet some globose cacti may establish in the absence of nurse plants. In these cases, rocks and other soil irregularities may facilitate germination and establishment.
Cacti are slow-growing species. Several abiotic factors, such as water and nutrient availability, may affect their growth rate. Competition and positive associations (i.e., mycorrhizae and nurse–cacti association) may also affect growth rate. Age at first reproduction varies greatly in relation to plant longevity. In general, cactus reproductive capacity increases with plant size. Populations are often composed of an uneven number of individuals distributed in the different size categories. This type of population structure reflects massive but infrequent recruitment events, apparently associated with benign periods of abundant rainfall.
A few cactus species have been analyzed through the use of population-projection matrices. A total of 17 matrices were compiled and compared. Most of them reflect populations that are close to the numerical equilibrium (λ = close to unity). Elasticity analyses revealed that the persistence of individuals in their current size category (“stasis”) is the demographic process that contributes the most to population growth rate. Also, adult categories (rather than juveniles or seedlings) show the largest contributions to λ. No differences were apparent regarding this matter between cacti with different life-forms. This review shows that our knowledge of cactus population ecology is still incipient and rather unevenly distributed: some topics are well developed; for others the available information is still very limited. Our ability to preserve the great number of cactus species that are now endangered depends on our capacity to deepen our ecological understanding of their population processes.