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Trait but not species convergence during plant community assembly in restored semi-natural grasslands


K. Helsen, Plant Conservation and Population Biology, Biology Dept, Univ. of Leuven, Arenbergpark 31, Box 2435, BE-3001 Heverlee, Belgium. E-mail:


Community assembly or succession was traditionally thought of as being deterministic and directional, leading to a clearly defined climax state. The alternative view, however, keeps gaining attention. This view states that community assembly is influenced by historical processes, where differences in the sequence and timing of species arrival result in distinct communities. Here we tested the hypothesis that both views are valid, but at a different level, with increasing dissimilarity in species composition among sites with increasing age (divergence), caused by historical processes (priority effects), and with increasing similarity in mean trait composition (convergence) among sites, indicating a directional development at the niche level. We surveyed a chronosequence of restored semi-natural grassland patches on former pine plantations over seven restoration age classes, covering 22 grasslands. Pairwise multivariate distances were calculated between the different grassland patches based on species abundance on the one hand, and on mean community trait values for 28 plant life history traits on the other. Trait composition showed a clear decrease in multivariate distance with increasing restoration age, indicating trait convergence through time. At the species level, we found no evidence of convergence through time, with even a trend towards divergence. Furthermore, spatial variation and environmental heterogeneity were found to remain constant through time. These results confirm our hypothesis. At the trait level, limited niches occur, only filled by species having the appropriate traits, resulting in a clear deterministic model of assembly. Species identity, on the contrary, has no role in this niche filling. The first appropriate species to reach a restoration site will be most likely the ones that get established, resulting in divergence of the species composition among restored grasslands.