Abstract Aim We evaluate environmental and historical determinants of modern species composition for upland vegetation types across Cape Cod, Massachusetts, a region that supports numerous uncommon species assemblages that are conservation priorities.
Location The study area encompasses the entire peninsula of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA.
Methods Historical changes in land-use and land-cover across the study region were determined from historical maps and documentary sources. Modern vegetation and soils were sampled and land-use and fire history determined for 352 stratified-random study plots. Ordination and classification were used to assess vegetation variation, and G-tests of independence and Kruskal–Wallis tests were used to evaluate relationships among individual species distributions, past land-use, surficial landforms and edaphic conditions.
Results At the scale of this investigation, modern species distributions result from individualistic response to a range of environmental and historical factors, including geography, substrate and disturbance history, especially the pattern of past agricultural activity. The structure or composition of all vegetation types in the region have been shaped by past land-use, fire, or other disturbances, and vegetation patterns will continue to change through time. Conservation efforts aimed at maintaining early successional vegetation types may require intensive management comparable in intensity to the historical disturbances that allowed for their widespread development.