Plant Population Biology and Vegetation Processes


  • S. Waite

K. Falinska (1998). Pp. 368. W. Szafer Institute of Botany, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland. ISBN 83-85444-63-7. Price not given (paperback).

This book consists of six sections. The first contains four chapters that purport to review the principal concepts and methods used in the study of the population and vegetation dynamics. Subsequent sections cover aspects of plant life history variation, population and vegetation dynamics, species colonization success and soil seed banks. The final section, entitled ‘From population dynamics to vegetation dynamics’, presents a synthesis of the subject relating vegetation change to ecological processes operating over a range of spatial and temporal scales. Despite the efforts of the editor, the book reads like the proceedings of a conference. Each section begins with an overview and is followed by separate contributions that outline the results of original studies conducted in Poland over the last 25 years. In total, there are seven major contributing authors.

The preface states that, starting from the theoretical understanding provided by Harper (1977), the authors “have made an attempt to analyse the relations among the populations and ecological processes” and to provide “a synthesis of original studies … in the light of the theory of the populations structure of vegetation”. Have they achieved this? In a word, no.

The book is at its best when describing the results of long-term population studies. In comparison to the many western studies, those reported here have been conducted on a much larger scale. In addition to collecting demographic data, Polish researchers have collected information on the spatial distribution of plants and vegetation, allowing changes in vegetation to be mapped and related to species demography. Few of the studies incorporate manipulative experimentation, most appear to be designed solely to provide detailed descriptions of vegetation change. Some contributions contain detailed discussion of the problems of defining and recognizing types of vegetation change. The results are clearly summarized in diagrammatic form. The level of analysis is limited, almost entirely confined to description. None of the data sets presented are subjected to modelling or sensitivity analysis using matrices. No use is made of multivariate methods to explore relationships between environmental factors, vegetation and populations dynamics. Given the aims of the book, I had expected a more sophisticated level of analysis.

The book is at its worst when attempting to develop a theoretical synthesis. The authors are prone to making unsupported general statements. For example, we are told that “the size of niche is correlated with the geographical range and local populations density” (sic) and that “seeds fit for long-distance dispersal are usually capable of fast germination and frequently do not require dormancy”. While these statements may be true for some species in particular circumstances, they cannot be accepted as established factual generalizations. The majority of western literature cited dates from the late 1970s and early 1980s. MacArthur & Wilson's theory of island biogeography is accepted and applied to habitat islands without comment or reservation. Yet more recent works on the dynamics of metapopulations is hardly mentioned. In some cases the literature cited has been misinterpreted. For example, Hutchings (1987) is cited as suggesting that orchid plants die after two successive years below ground. This is not true. Hutchings' comments on the longevity of dormant orchids relate only to Ophrys sphegodes. The misinterpretations and inappropriate citing of some western literature may result from problems of language. It is clear that the first language of the authors is not English. Although most of the book is readily readable, even if the style is stilted, some passages are virtually impenetrable. This is definitely not a light read and is clearly not suitable as a student text.

Despite these shortcomings, the book does have value. It contains a considerable amount of information on a large number of European plant species. Anyone writing a biological flora should consider consulting this book. Unfortunately, there is no species index, but it should be possible to find material relevant to a particular species from figure legends and subheadings given in the margins of the text. The book also provides an interesting window on available Polish botanical literature and the results of field studies that are largely unpublished in western English language journals.