Unexpected understorey community development after 30 years in ancient and post-agricultural forests

TitleUnexpected understorey community development after 30 years in ancient and post-agricultural forests
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsBaeten L., Hermy M., Van Daele S., Verheyen K.
JournalJournal of Ecology
Pagination1447 - 1453
Date Published2010///
KeywordsAncient forest, Biodiversity balance, Community drift, Disturbance, Forest herbs, Land-use history, Plant population and community dynamics, Secondary forest succession, Semi-permanent plots
TagsPlant population and community dynamics, Ancient forest, Forest herbs, Secondary forest succession, land-use history, Biodiversity balance, Community drift, Disturbances, Semi-permanent plots

Land-use change is considered one of the most radical and extensive disturbances that have influenced plant distributions and diversity patterns in forest understorey communities in much of Europe and eastern North America. In forests growing on former agricultural land, local species diversity and community differentiation among sites are generally reduced compared with ancient forests (i.e. forests with no historical record of agriculture). Yet, no study has determined how the compositional differences created by former land-use change over time as the forest sites recover from former agricultural use. Here, we resurveyed 78 vegetation plots (half of the plots in ancient and half in post-agricultural forest) to demonstrate how three decades of forest development have changed the compositional differences between post-agricultural and ancient forest sites. The impact of land-use history and survey date was tested on two measures of species diversity and two measure of community divergence. The data indicate that the imprint of former agricultural land use persisted over time, yet not through compositional stability. Parallel and strong vegetation shifts occurred in both ancient and post-agricultural forest: the species diversity decreased and local species cover strongly diverged, which indicates community drift. The observed understorey changes did thus not support the commonly accepted model of community development in post-agricultural forests, i.e. the diversity did not increase and the vegetation did not become more similar to the ancient forest vegetation over time. The changes in species composition were associated with an increase of common, competitive species at the expense of ancient forest indicator species. The source populations of ancient forest species have been gradually depleted, so the recovery of post-agricultural forests becomes even more precarious. Synthesis. While land-use history is likely to persist as the primary predictor of local species diversity and community divergence, other environmental drivers may additionally structure forest understorey communities and lead to biotic impoverishment and pervasive species reordering on the time scale of only decades. © 2010 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2010 British Ecological Society.


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