Beta-diversity of Central European forests decreases along an elevational gradient due to the variation in local community assembly processes

28 August 2017

Sabatini, Francesco; Jimenez-Alfaro, Borja; Burrascano, Sabina; Lora, Andrea; Chytrý, Milan

Beta-diversity has been repeatedly shown to decline with increasing elevation, but the causes of this pattern remain unclear, partly because they are confounded by coincident variation in alpha- and gamma-diversity. We used 8,795 forest vegetation-plot records from the Czech National Phytosociological Database to compare the observed patterns of beta diversity to null-model expectations (beta-deviation) controlling for the effects of alpha- and gamma-diversity. We tested whether β-diversity patterns along a 1,200 m elevation gradient exclusively depend on the effect of varying species pool size, or also on the variation of the magnitude of community assembly mechanisms determining the distribution of species across communities (e.g., environmental filtering, dispersal limitation). The null model we used is a novel extension of an existing null-model designed for presence/absence data and was specifically designed to disrupt the effect of community assembly mechanisms, while retaining some key features of observed communities such as average species richness and species abundance distribution. Analyses were replicated in ten subregions with comparable elevation ranges. Beta-diversity declined along the elevation gradient due to a decrease in gamma-diversity, which was steeper than the decrease in alpha-diversity. This pattern persisted after controlling for alpha- and gamma-diversity variation, and the results were robust when different resampling schemes and diversity metrics were used. We conclude that in temperate forests the pattern of decreasing beta-diversity with elevation does not exclusively depend on variation in species pool size, as has been hypothesized, but also on variation in community assembly mechanisms. The results were consistent across resampling schemes and diversity measures, thus supporting the use of vegetation plot databases for understanding patterns of beta-diversity at the regional scale.