Questions: The early phases of primary succession are governed by chance events and dispersal-related processes in an environment that is largely free of competition. Thus, the predictability of vegetation patterns using environmental site factors can be expected to be low and spatial autocorrelation to be high. We asked whether the match between vegetation and environment becomes better in the course of succession, and whether vegetation types shift their realized niche with time.
Location: Lignite mining region in Central Germany, the post-mining landscape “Goitzsche” (Saxony-Anhalt).
Methods: Vegetation types were mapped in a 10-m grid (total area 4.8 ha), starting in 1995, at 3-year intervals until 2007. We used a temporal comparison of habitat models. We applied: GLS regression to partition the variation in coverage of vegetation types into environmental (soil pH) and spatial components; logistic regression to model the presence/absence of vegetation types along a soil acidity gradient; and autologistic regression allowing for soil acidity and neighbourhood effects.
Results: For most vegetation types, the proportion of variation explained by space was high but declined during succession. The outcome of autologistic models suggests that soil acidity often plays a minor role compared to neighbourhood effects in the earlier phase of succession than 12 years later. For four vegetation types, the pH range in which the type was expected to be dominant clearly became smaller with time. These trends support the view that the role of processes related to chance and dispersal decrease with time, while those related to environmental filtering mediated by biotic interactions increase.
Conclusions: We conclude that temporal comparisons of spatially explicit habitat models provide insights into changing biotic community processes and their effects on habitat specificity of species or their communities. Thus, this approach may be particularly important for analysis of ecological systems that are not in equilibrium with their environmental drivers.