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Keywords:

  • community structure;
  • eutrophication;
  • forest management;
  • life-history traits;
  • long-term changes;
  • resurvey;
  • semi-permanent plots;
  • specific leaf area;
  • taxonomic homogenization;
  • temporal nestedness analysis

Summary

  1. The plant community structure of European lowland forests has changed dramatically in the twentieth century, leading to biodiversity decline at various spatial scales. However, due to methodological difficulties associated with simultaneous changes in species diversity and composition, ecological processes behind the changes are still poorly understood.
  2. We analysed temporal changes in forest plant community after the mid-twentieth-century abandonment of coppicing in a typical Central European forest, which had been managed as coppice for centuries. We used 122 semi-permanent plots first surveyed in the 1950s shortly after the last coppicing and again in the 2000s after half a century of natural succession. We used a novel temporal nestedness analysis to disentangle the immigration and extinction processes underlying temporal changes in community structure and tested whether species gains and losses were ecologically random.
  3. The studied vegetation has shifted from the species-rich assemblages of a relatively open and low-nutrient forest towards the impoverished flora of a closed-canopy forest dominated by a few shade-adapted species. The significant reduction in beta diversity, that is, compositional heterogeneity among plots, indicated taxonomic homogenization of the forest understorey. Temporal species turnover was only a minor component of the community change, and recent assemblages are nested subsets of the former ones. Ecologically non-random extinctions dominated these changes. Light-demanding species with a persistent seed bank were the most prone to extinction, while species with high specific leaf area substantially increased in frequency.
  4. Synthesis and applications. The dominant process after the abandonment of coppicing was the ecologically non-random extinction of light-demanding species, leading to an impoverished, temporally nested plant community structure. This development is typical for many abandoned coppices and poses a significant threat to forest biodiversity in Europe. If forestry and conservation policies continue to prefer closed-canopy stands, many endangered species are likely to pay their extinction debts. To restore declining or even locally extinct species, canopy opening in abandoned coppices is urgently needed.