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Faculty of Biology, Chemistry and Earth Sciences

Chair of Plant Ecology - Prof. Dr. Steven Higgins

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Baumann, E; Weiser, F; Chiarucci, A; Jentsch, A; Dengler, J: Diversity and functional composition of alpine grasslands along an elevational transect in the Gran Paradiso National Park (NW Italy), Tuexenia, 36, 337–358 (2016), doi:10.14471/2016.36.015
Key words: alpha-diversity, altitudinal gradient, beta-diversity, biodiversity, community-weighted mean, life form, multi-model inference, nested plot, plant functional trait, species-area relationship (SAR)
Elevational gradients in high mountain ranges are particularly suitable to study and understand pat- terns and drivers of plant community diversity and composition, yet there are only few studies that explicitly addressed this topic for the European Alps. Here we analysed an elevational gradient in grasslands of the Gran Paradiso National Park (NW Italy) from c. 1,700 to 3,100 m a.s.l. We recorded vascular plant species composition in 13 100-m2 plots, each with two series of nested subplots from 0.0001 to 10 m2, as well as a set of environmental parameters (topography, soil). Beta-diversity was assessed via the z-values of power-law species-area relationships, both across all plot sizes and from one plot size to the next bigger one. Diversity-environment relationships were assessed with multi- model inference based on Akaike information criterion (AIC), while scale dependence in z-values across plot sizes was analysed with an ANOVA. Life forms and three major functional traits (specific leaf area = SLA, canopy height, seed mass) were derived from trait databases to calculate fractions of life forms and community-weighted means for the metric traits. Species richness on 100 m2 ranged from 17 to 65, with a mean of 43.5. The z-values were within a typical range known for European grasslands (mean: 0.227), with non-significant scale dependence. The importance of environmental factors for richness changed across grain sizes, with inclination (positive effect), mean soil depth and soil skeleton content (both: negative effect) being most influential at grain sizes of 0.0001–1 m2. By contrast, soil pH was most important (with a unimodal relationship) for 10 and 100 m2. After account- ing for the other environmental factors, elevation showed a moderate unimodal relationship only for the two largest grain sizes. By contrast, functional composition showed strong and mostly significant rela- tionships with elevation: hemicryptophytes and geophytes became rarer and chamaephytes more fre- quent, while community-weighted means of SLA, canopy height and seed mass decreased. Our findings highlight the scale dependence of biodiversity patterns, thus pointing to the need of multi-scale sam- pling to reach comprehensive understanding. Further, we could provide one of the first documentations of biodiversity and functional composition along an elevational gradient in the Alps, some in agreement with expectations, others not. This suggests that more extensive studies with a similar design in this and other regions of the Alps could be a valuable contribution to the understanding of how environmental factors drive components of biodiversity as well a functional community assembly.
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