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Plio-Pleistocene climate change and geographic heterogeneity in plant diversity–environment relationships


  • Jens-Christian Svenning,

  • Signe Normand,

  • Flemming Skov

J.-C. Svenning ( and S. Normand, Dept of Biological Sciences, Aarhus Univ., Ny Munkegade 1540, DK–8000 Aarhus C, Denmark. – F. Skov, Dept of Wildlife Ecology and Biodiversity, National Environmental Research Inst., Aarhus Univ., Grenaavej 12, DK–8410 Kalø, Denmark.


Plio-Pleistocene climate change may have induced geographic heterogeneity in plant species richness–environment relationships in Europe due to greater in situ species survival and speciation rates in southern Europe. We formulate distinct hypotheses on how Plio-Pleistocene climate change may have affected richness–topographic heterogeneity and richness–water-energy availability relationships, causing steeper relationships in southern Europe. We investigated these hypotheses using data from Atlas Florae Europaeae on the distribution of 3069 species and geographically weighted regression (GWR). Our analyses showed that plant species richness generally increased with topographic heterogeneity (ln-transformed altitudinal range) and actual evapotranspiration (AET). We also found evidence for strong geographic heterogeneity in the species richness–environment relationship, with a greater increase in species richness with increasing topographic heterogeneity in southern Europe (mean standardized local slope 0.610±0.245 SD in southern Europe, but only 0.270±0.175 SD in northern Europe). However, the local AET slopes were, at most, weakly different between the two regions, and their pattern did not conform to predictions, as there was a band of high local slopes across southern-central northern Europe. This band broadly matches the transition between the temperate and boreal zones and may simply reflect the fact that few species tolerate the boreal climate. We discuss the potential explanations for the contrasting findings for the two richness–environment relationships. In conclusion, we find support for the idea that Plio-Pleistocene climate change may sometimes affect current species richness–environment relationships via its effects on regional species pools. However, further studies integrating information on species ages and clade differentiation rates will be needed to substantiate this interpretation. On a general level, our results indicate that although strong richness–environment relationships are often found in macroecological studies, these can be contingent upon the historical constraints on the species pool.