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Patterns of plant species turnover along grazing gradients



Questions: How are plant species distributed along grazing gradients? What is the shape of species richness patterns? How can we test for the existence of potential discontinuities in species turnover pattern?

Location: Semi-deserts in the eastern Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Gobustan district.

Methods: We studied the distribution of vascular plant species along transects 900-m long, perpendicular to five farms, and estimated grazing intensity as current livestock units per distance. We modelled species response curves with Huismann–Olff–Fresco (HOF) models and calculated species turnover by accumulating the first derivatives of all response curves. To test for potential discontinuities in changes of vegetation composition along the grazing gradient, we introduce a new null model based on the individualistic continuum concept that uses permutations of the observed pattern of species responses.

Results: Most species show a sigmoidal negative response to grazing intensity, while a few species respond with a unimodal pattern. The monotonic decrease in species richness with increasing grazing intensity marks a process of overgrazing that leads to the complete extirpation of plant species. Although the species turnover pattern shows a clear peak, it does not deviate significantly from the null model of individualistic continuous changes.

Conclusions: Our approach offers a method for differentiating between transition zones and continuous shifts in species composition along ecological gradients. It also provides a valuable tool for rangeland management to test state-and-transition concepts and gives deeper insights into ecological processes affected by grazing.