Questions: What are the most likely environmental drivers for compositional herb layer changes as indicated by trait differences between winner and loser species?
Location: Weser-Elbe region (NW Germany).
Methods: We resurveyed the herb layer communities of ancient forest patches on base-rich sites of 175 semi-permanent plots. Species traits were tested for their ability to discriminate between winner and loser species using logistic regression analyses and deviance partitioning.
Results: Of 115 species tested, 31 were identified as winner species and 30 as loser species. Winner species had higher seed longevity, flowered later in the season and more often had an oceanic distribution compared to loser species. Loser species tended to have a higher specific leaf area, were more susceptible to deer browsing and had a performance optimum at higher soil pH compared to winner species. The loser species also represented several ancient forest and threatened species. Deviance partitioning indicated that local drivers (i.e. disturbance due to forest management) were primarily responsible for the species shifts, while regional drivers (i.e. browsing pressure and acidification from atmospheric deposition) and global drivers (i.e. climate warming) had moderate effects. There was no evidence that canopy closure, drainage or eutrophication contributed to herb layer changes.
Conclusions: The relative importance of the different drivers as indicated by the winner and loser species differs from that found in previous long-term studies. Relating species traits to species performance is a valuable tool that provides insight into the environmental drivers that are most likely responsible for herb layer changes.