Aim The diversity changes that occurred in Central European forests during the early Holocene can be better understood using ecological knowledge of modern analogues of these forests, which occur in far Eastern Europe. Here we compare the diversity of vascular plants, bryophytes and snails among different forest types of the Southern Urals to provide insights into the palaeoecology of the vanished Central European forests.
Location Southern Ural Mountains, Bashkortostan, Russia.
Methods We recorded all species of vascular plants, ground-dwelling bryophytes and land snails, and measured biotic and abiotic variables, in 100-m2 plots located in four forest types dominated by different trees: Pinus sylvestris–Larix sibirica, Betula pendula–Populus tremula, Quercus robur and Acer platanoides–Tilia cordata–Ulmus glabra. These types correspond to the chronosequence of forest communities that occurred in Central Europe in the early Holocene.
Results The species richness of herb-layer plants was most affected by the canopy-transmitted light. The former three forest types had open canopy and were rich in species, whereas the Acer–Tilia–Ulmus forests were darker and poor in species. The species richness of ground-dwelling bryophytes decreased from coniferous to broad-leaved deciduous forests. In contrast, the highest species richness of snails was in the Acer–Tilia–Ulmus forests owing to the higher calcium content in the litter of these trees.
Main conclusions Based on the modern analogue of the Southern Ural forests, we propose the hypothesis that the late-glacial open-canopy pine and larch forests of Central European lowlands were rich in light-demanding species of vascular plants, many of which were also typical of tall-grass steppes or mesic grasslands. They also contained several species of ground-dwelling bryophytes. The spread of birch, aspen and oak in the early Holocene reduced the local species richness of ground-dwelling bryophytes but not of vascular plants. The subsequent spread of elm, lime, maple and ash caused canopy closure, a retreat of the light-demanding herbs and a decline in the local species richness of vascular plants. Besides the increased shading by these tree species, their litter enriched soils in calcium, and enhanced decomposition and nutrient cycling. This supported an increase in the species richness of land snails.