Question: How does habitat degradation affect recruitment limitation and its components (seed limitation versus establishment limitation) of woody plant communities in a Mediterranean landscape?
Location: 1600-1900 m a.s.l. in the Sierra Nevada National Park, southern Spain. The landscape is a mosaic composed of native forest and two degraded landscape units: reforestation stands and shrubland.
Methods: We evaluated fruit production, seed rain, seedling emergence and seedling survival in two consecutive years with contrasting rainfall patterns. Seed and seedling data were used to calculate values of seed and establishment limitation.
Results: In general, the woody community was both severely seed- and establishment-limited. Species were less seed-limited in the landscape units with higher adult density (i.e. shrub species in shrubland, Pinus spp. in reforestation stands). In contrast, degradation did not exacerbate establishment limitation, which was severe in all landscape units. This general pattern was modulated by the biogeographical distribution, dispersal type, and life form of the species. Boreo-alpine species were more limited in establishment than species with a typical Mediterranean distribution. Zoochorous species were less seed-limited in the landscape units preferred by dispersers (i.e. native forest). Tree species were more establishment-limited than shrub species, irrespective of the landscape unit. Seed limitation, and especially establishment limitation, varied among years, with establishment being almost nil in the very dry year.
Conclusion: In the case of Mediterranean landscapes, when degradation from human impact involves a reduction in the adult abundance of the woody plant community (trees and shrubs), seed limitation increases, although establishment limitation is generally high in all landscape units, especially for boreo-alpine species. Conservation and restoration strategies should take into account our results showing that tree species were unable to recruit in an extremely dry year, because more aridity is expected under a climatic change scenario in Mediterranean ecosystems.