Harsh conditions in arid and semi-arid environments make seedling establishment rare. Plant recruitment in arid environments often occurs only in years with above average rainfall or in safe sites under the canopy of nurse plants that provide shelter from high temperatures and low moisture. Associations of establishing seedlings with adult plants are referred to as nurse-protégé interactions and are thought to be commensalisms in which seedlings benefit from the micro-environment created by adult plants with no effect for the latter. This phenomenon is thought to be more frequent in harsh than in mild environments and appears to occur frequently in deserts and arid and semi-arid biomes. Here, we investigate whether nurse-protégé interactions are more common in arid environments by searching the published literature from the previous 92 years using the terms nurse plants, protégé plants, facilitation, nucleation and facultative mutualism. We then quantitatively compared these reports from arid zones to other environments. A total of 296 papers were found which referred to nurse-protégé interactions. More than half (158) focused on arid and semi-arid zones. This information was also used to explore hypotheses of potential causative forces that might have selected for such interactions in the arid zones such as seed trapping, nutrient, moisture, protection from browsing or trampling and support availability. Because of the large number of different nurse species (147, from 98 genera and 40 families) and protégé species (429, from 273 genera and 84 families), described across a diversity of environments, we suggest that there may be more than one causative factor selecting for nurse-protégé interactions in arid and semi-arid environments.
Nomenclature: See references in (App. 1).