Rock climbing affects cliff-plant communities by reducing species diversity and altering species coexistence patterns

Cliffs are unique ecosystems with an outstanding but relatively unknown plant diversity, harboring rare, endemic and threatened species, but also rock-specialist or generalist species that can become locally common and dominant on cliffs. The rising popularity of climbing represents an increasing threat to cliff biota, affecting community composition and potentially diminishing diversity and species associations. We used a novel sampling design of closely-paired climbed versus unclimbed points along the cliff-face. We sampled along climbing routes of different climbing intensities in El Potrero Chico (Nuevo León, Mexico), identifying plant species and analyzing species associations and community composition in climbed and unclimbed plots. Diversity on the sampled cliffs was high, even greater than in other regional ecosystems. We found reduced abundance, cover, and diversity in climbed plots, irrespective of climbing intensity. Dominant species on the sampled cliffs were the most negatively affected by rock climbing in terms of abundance, and some locally rare species, including endemics and endangered species, were entirely absent from climbed plots. Co-occurrence analysis showed that the number of associations between pairs of dominant and common species were greatly reduced in climbed plots, and that positive associations between locally rare species existed in unclimbed plots but not in climbed plots, which may contribute to the disappearance of endemic and threatened species. Finally, NMDS analysis revealed that the community composition changed significantly due to climbing. Our results indicate that conservation science should convince stakeholders of the need for a holistic conservation of cliff ecosystems and not focus solely on emblematic or rare species, since plant community dynamics and preservation depend on interactions between plant species.
© The Author(s) 2023. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit The Version of Scholarly Record of this Article is published in Biodiversity and Conservation, 2023, available online at: . Keywords: cliff plant community composition; dominant and rare species; human disturbance; spatial associations; species co-occurrence and interactions ; sport ecology.
March-Salas, M., Morales-Armijo, F., Hernández-Agüero, J. et al. Rock climbing affects cliff-plant communities by reducing species diversity and altering species coexistence patterns. Biodivers Conserv 32, 1617–1638 (2023).