Biotic Impoverishment and Homogenization in Unfragmented Forest Understory Communities

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Ecological change is often hard to document because of a lack of reliable baseline data. Several recent then-versus-now surveys of temperate forest and grassland communities demonstrate losses of local plant species, but most are based on data from a single site. We resurveyed understory communities in 62 upland forest stands in northern Wisconsin (U. S. A.) for which quantitative baseline data exist from 50 years ago. These stands are within a largely unfragmented region but vary in species composition and successional stage. We collected data on changes in (1) total and native species richness, (2) the ratio of exotic to native species, (3) the relative abundance of habitat generalists, and (4) community similarity among sites. We also compared how these rates of change varied over time. Over the past 50 years, native species density declined an average of 18.5% at the 20-m(2) scale, whereas the ratio of exotic species to native species increased at 80% of all sites. Habitat generalists increased, and habitat specialists declined, accounting in part for an 8.7% rise in average similarity in species composition among sites. Most of these changes cannot be related to succession, habitat loss, or invasion by exotic species. Areas without deer hunting showed the greatest declines in native species density, with parks and research natural areas faring no better than unprotected stands. Animal-pollinated and animal-dispersed species also declined, particularly at unhunted sites. These results demonstrate the power of quantitative multistand data for assessing ecological change and identify overabundant deer as a key driver of community change. Because maintaining forest habitats alone fails to preserve plant diversity at local scales, local biotic simplification seems likely to continue in the region unless active efforts are taken to protect diversity.



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