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Re-visiting historical semi-natural grasslands in the Apennines to assess patterns of changes in species composition and functional traits

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Abstract

Questions

To what extent have semi-natural grassland plant species composition and functional traits changed during the past five decades? Which are the main directions of change? Which environmental, management and landscape factors have determined these changes?

Location

Central and southern Apennines of Italy.

Methods

In 2013–2014, we used a stratified random sampling design to revisit 132 semi-natural grasslands originally sampled between 1966 and 1992. The exact locations of the historical plots were not available but they were associated with detailed vegetation maps. Plots were divided in 17 groups based on study area and original community type. To assess changes in species composition we ran PERMANOVA and RDA. The extent of change was estimated by comparing each new plot with the quantitative species pool of the corresponding historical group; species composition changes were calculated using Bray-Curtis coefficient, and shifts in functional traits were quantified as differences in community-weighted means. These measures of change were used as response variables in mixed effects models including climate, topography, management and landscape metrics as explanatory variables.

Results

The largest changes were related to successional dynamics, which occurred mainly in grasslands developing at low altitude and in the flattest sites where the soil organic horizon was relatively thick. Colonization by shrubs and trees was facilitated by high soil pH and amount of adjacent forests. Also, management factors affected the patterns of shifts in species composition and functional traits: grazing intensity was negatively related to the degree of compositional change as well as to the abundance of woody species, whereas the increase of species associated with frequent grazing disturbance was found at sites with higher values of soil salinity.

Conclusions

Apennine semi-natural grasslands have undergone substantial changes in species composition and functional traits during recent decades. Compositional changes mainly indicated successional dynamics, likely following a decrease in grazing intensity, whereas some more accessible grasslands experienced an increase in disturbance-tolerant species. The combination of the re-visitation approach with functional traits allowed us to clarify different directions of changes in species composition, adding information on the ecological processes related to these changes.

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