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Effect of habitat area and isolation on plant trait distribution in European forests and grasslands
18.01.2012

by: Pavel Stoev

A new study exploring the sensitivity of grassland and forest plants to decreasing habitat size and isolation in north-central Europe carried out within the SCALES project concludes that an irreversible shift in the most dominant plant species may already be underway in forests and grassland, where forests are more vulnerable than grasslands. Overall, forest species were found to be more sensitive to changes in habitat area and isolation than grassland species. Out of the 121 area-sensitive species, 89 were from forests compared to 32 from grasslands. Similarly, of the 128 species found to be sensitive to isolation, 88 were from forests compared to 40 from grasslands. The results also suggest that ‘clonal’ plants, those that mainly reproduce asexually, were more sensitive to a decrease in habitat size in forests and grasslands than non-clonal plants, which reproduce by dispersing seeds or spores. This result, which contrasts with previous studies, may be linked to a lower capacity to spread into new habitat. For short-lived and non-clonal species, which were less sensitive to habitat size and isolation, habitat quality may be a more important factor, say the researchers. Differences in seed weight across the species revealed no link with habitat area, but a strong link with isolation. Surprisingly, forest species with large seeds were more sensitive than those with small seeds, while the opposite was true for grassland species. The scientists relate this to different modes of seed dispersal in forests and grasslands, i.e. self-dispersal, by wind or attached to the fur of animals. The researchers warn that the greater sensitivity of long-lived, clonal plants implies that a further decrease in habitat area and increased fragmentation in European forests and grasslands may lead to an irreversible change in plant community composition, perhaps resulting in local extinctions.
Source: Lindborg, R., Helm, A., Bommarco. R., et al. 2011. Effect of habitat area and isolation on plant trait distribution in European forests and grasslands. Ecography. 34: 001-008.

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