Species associations structured by environment and land-use history promote beta-diversity in a temperate forest


  • Corresponding Editor: T. P. Young.


Patterns of diversity and community composition in forests are controlled by a combination of environmental factors, historical events, and stochastic or neutral mechanisms. Each of these processes has been linked to forest community assembly, but their combined contributions to alpha and beta-diversity in forests has not been well explored. Here we use variance partitioning to analyze ~40 000 individual trees of 49 species, collected within 137 ha of sampling area spread across a 900-ha temperate deciduous forest reserve in Pennsylvania to ask (1) To what extent is site-to-site variation in species richness and community composition of a temperate forest explained by measured environmental gradients and by spatial descriptors (used here to estimate dispersal-assembly or unmeasured, spatially structured processes)? (2) How does the incorporation of land-use history information increase the importance attributed to deterministic community assembly? and (3) How do the distributions and abundances of individual species within the community correlate with these factors? Environmental variables (i.e., topography, soils, and distance to stream), spatial descriptors (i.e., spatial eigenvectors derived from Cartesian coordinates), and land-use history variables (i.e., land-use type and intensity, forest age, and distance to road), explained about half of the variation in both species richness and community composition. Spatial descriptors explained the most variation, followed by measured environmental variables and then by land-use history. Individual species revealed variable responses to each of these sets of predictor variables. Several species were associated with stream habitats, and others were strictly delimited across opposing north- and south-facing slopes. Several species were also associated with areas that experienced recent (i.e., <100 years) human land-use impacts. These results indicate that deterministic factors, including environmental and land-use history variables, are important drivers of community response. The large amount of “unexplained” variation seen here (about 50%) is commonly observed in other such studies attempting to explain distribution and abundance patterns of plant communities. Determining whether such large fractions of unaccounted for variation are caused by a lack of sufficient data, or are an indication of stochastic features of forest communities globally, will remain an important challenge for ecologists in the future.