Get access

Importance of soil nutrients in the distribution of forest communities on a large geographical scale


*Correspondence: Damien Marage, AgroParisTech, UMR 1092, Laboratoire d’étude des Ressources Forêt-Bois (LERFoB), ENGREF, 14 rue Girardet, F-54042 Nancy, France. E-mail:


Aim  Soil nutrient content plays a key role in plant growth through mineral nutrition and toxicity. Its impact on plant species and community distribution is studied on a large geographical scale through surrogates like topography or geology. We investigated the importance of soil pH and C:N ratio, as direct nutritional gradients, to determine, with climatic factors, the spatial distribution of plant communities over large territories.

Location  We studied the distribution of six beech habitats of the NATURA 2000 network throughout France (550,000 km2).

Methods  Models were calibrated with 2108 floristic plots classified in the NATURA 2000 system and including climatic and topographic variables and soil nutritional measurements carried out in a laboratory. Logistic regression was used to model habitat distribution according to environmental variables. Climatic layers, a digital elevation model and maps of soil pH and nitrogen content, created using plant indicator values and large floristic databases, were used to map the sites suitable for beech communities. Distribution models were evaluated with an independent set of 2091 phytosociological plots.

Results  pH and nitrogen supply were the key distribution drivers for four of the six beech communities on a national scale. Their use in the distribution models distinguished within homogeneous climatic territories a gradient of nutritional conditions from acidic areas, suitable for nutrient-poor beech communities, to calcareous areas suitable for nutrient-rich ones. Predicted maps of beech habitats fit the spatial distribution of validation plots.

Main conclusions  Soil pH and nitrogen supply strongly improve predictions of forest community distribution carried out with climatic variables on a broad geographical scale. They allow delineation of areas with nutritional conditions suitable for each community, as well as the realization of predictive high-resolution maps over large areas useful for sustainable and conservation management.

Nomenclature Tutin & Heywood (2001) Flora Europaea. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.