Taxonomic, phylogenetic and functional diversity of understorey plants respond differently to environmental conditions in European forest edges

1. Forest biodiversity worldwide is affected by climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, and today 20 % of the forest area is located within 100 m of a forest edge. Still, forest edges harbour a substantial amount of terrestrial biodiversity, especially in the understorey. The functional and phylogenetic diversity of forest edges have never been studied simultaneously at a continental scale, in spite of their importance for the forests’ functioning and for communities’ resilience to future change.

2. We assessed nine metrics of taxonomic, phylogenetic and functional diversity of understorey plant communities in 225 plots spread along edge‐to‐interior gradients in deciduous forests across Europe. We then derived the relative effects and importance of edaphic, stand and landscape conditions on the diversity metrics.

3. Here, we show that taxonomic, phylogenetic and functional diversity metrics respond differently to environmental conditions. We report an increase in functional diversity in plots with stronger microclimatic buffering, in spite of their lower taxonomic species richness. Additionally, we found increased taxonomic species richness at the forest edge, but in forests with intermediate and high openness, these communities had decreased phylogenetic diversity.

4. Functional and phylogenetic diversity revealed complementary and important insights in community assembly mechanisms. Several environmental filters were identified as potential drivers of the patterns, such as a colder macroclimate and less buffered microclimate for functional diversity. For phylogenetic diversity, edaphic conditions were more important. Interestingly, plots with lower soil pH had decreased taxonomic species richness, but led to increased phylogenetic diversity, challenging the phylogenetic niche conservatism concept.

5. Synthesis. Taxonomic, phylogenetic and functional diversity of understorey communities in forest edges respond differently to environmental conditions, providing insight in different community assembly mechanisms and their interactions. Therefore, it is important to look beyond species richness with phylogenetic and functional diversity approaches when focusing on forest understorey biodiversity.

Subscribe to our newsletter