Questions: Does plant species richness and composition of eastern Mediterranean dwarf shrubland (phrygana) correlate with soil pH? How important is the effect of pH on species diversity in relation to other environmental factors in this ecosystem? What is the evolutionary background of the diversity–pH relationship?
Location: Western Crete, Greece.
Methods: Species composition of vascular plants, soil and other environmental variables were sampled in 100-m2 plots on acidic and basic bedrock in phrygana vegetation. The relationships between species composition and environmental variables (including climate) were tested using canonical correspondence analysis, and relationships between species richness and environment using correlation and regression analyses. Data were analysed separately for different plant functional types based on life form and life span.
Results: Although soil pH varied across a narrow range (5.9-8.1), species composition changed significantly along the pH gradient within all plant functional types. For most functional types, the effect of soil pH on species composition was stronger than that of other environmental variables. Species richness of annuals, geophytes and suffruticose chamaephytes increased with soil pH, while richness of hemicryptophytes and shrubs was not correlated with pH.
Conclusions: The results are consistent with the evolutionary species pool hypothesis. High numbers of calcicole annuals, geophytes and suffruticose chamaephytes may be a result of the evolution of these groups on base-rich dry soils in the Mediterranean climate. In contrast, hemicryptophytes, a life form typical of the temperate zone, evolved on both acidic and basic soils and therefore their species numbers do not respond to soil pH across the narrow range studied. The lack of a relationship between shrub species richness and pH is difficult to explain: it may reflect the more diverse or older origin of Mediterranean woody species and their conservative niches.