How species traits and affinity to urban land use control large-scale species frequency


*Correspondence: Sonja Knapp, UFZ, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Department of Community Ecology, Theodor-Lieser-Straße 4, 06120 Halle, Germany; E-mail:


Aim  Although urban areas only occupy c. 2.8% of the earth's land surface, urbanization threatens biodiversity as areas of high human population density often coincide with high biodiversity. Therefore, nature conservation should concentrate on both remote areas and densely populated regions. Protecting rare plant species in rural and urban areas can contribute to the protection of biodiversity. We therefore need to understand why species are rare. Studies on causes of rarity often concentrate on either plant traits or extrinsic threats (such as habitat fragmentation or nitrogen enrichment). However, there are only a few studies that combine traits and extrinsic threats, although such analyses might clarify causes of rarity. We assessed how the affinity of vascular plant species to urban land use (‘urbanity’) interacts with plant traits in determining species frequency.

Location  Germany, resolution c. 12 km × 11 km.

Methods  Species with a low frequency may be rare because they occur in rare habitats or because of other reasons, although their habitat is frequent. Therefore, we calculated the frequency of species corrected for habitat frequency, i.e. relative species frequency. We explained relative species frequency by the interactions of species traits and species affinity to urban land use using generalized linear models. Simultaneous autoregressive error models controlled for phylogenetic relationships of species.

Results  Relative species frequency depends on species affinity to urban land use, independent of the different interactions between traits and urbanity used as predictors. The higher the urbanity the higher is species frequency. Urbanity interacts with species preferences towards temperature and soil acidity. Moreover, dispersal, nitrogen preferences and origin explain relative species frequency, amongst others.

Main conclusions  Many rare species, especially those preferring cool or acidic habitats might already have disappeared from urban areas. Analyses that combine species traits and environmental effects can explain the causes of rarity and help to derive better conservation strategies.