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Ecol Appl. 2006 Aug;16(4):1351-66.

Floristic conservation value, nested understory floras, and the development of second-growth forest.

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  • 1Illinois Natural History Survey, Champaign 61820, USA.


Nestedness analysis can reveal patterns of plant composition and diversity among forest patches. For nested floral assemblages, the plants occupying any one patch are a nested subset of the plants present in successively more speciose patches. Elimination of sensitive understory plants with human disturbance is one of several mechanisms hypothesized to generate nonrandom, nested floral distributions. Hypotheses explaining distributions of understory plants remain unsubstantiated across broad landscapes of varying forest types and disturbance histories. We sampled the vegetation of 51 floodplain and 55 upland forests across Illinois (USA) to examine how the diversity, composition, and nestedness of understory floras related to their overstory growth and structure (basal area), and their overall floristic conservation value (mean C). We found that plant assemblages were nested with respect to site species richness, such that rare plants indicated diverse forests. Floras were also nested with respect to site mean C and basal area (BA). However, in an opposite pattern from what we had expected, floras of high-BA stands were nested subsets of those of low-BA stands. A set of early-successional plants restricted to low-BA stands, and more importantly, the absence of a set of true forest plants in high-BA stands, accounted for this pattern. Additionally, we observed a decrease in species richness with increasing BA. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that recovery of true forest plants does not occur concurrently with overstory regeneration following massive anthropogenic disturbance. Nestedness by site mean C indicates that high conservation value (conservative) plants co-occur in highly diverse stands; these forests are assumed to be less disturbed historically. Because site mean C was uncorrelated with BA, BA-neutral disturbances such as livestock usage are suggested as accounting for between-site differences in mean C. When considered individually, conservative plants were actually more likely to be found in low-BA stands (uplands only). This suggests that floras of historically more open-canopied oak-hickory uplands are being degraded by canopy closure from increasing density of "mesophytic, nonpyrogenic" trees. It also indirectly suggests that recent moderate logging is uncorrelated with floristic conservation values.

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