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Strong shifts in plant diversity and vegetation composition in grassland shortly after climatic change

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Questions: Is plant diversity in mesic grassland ecosystems vulnerable in the short-term to extreme climate change events? How rapidly can responses in vegetation composition occur in perennial grasslands? Are the expected compositional changes related to rare species losses or to shifts in the relative abundance of the dominants?

Location: Subalpine mesic grasslands on limestone in the Pyrenees.

Methods: Transplanting turves from the upland, with cold-temperate climate, to a lowland location, with continental Mediterranean climate.

Results: Transplanting led to decreased biodiversity and strong shifts in vegetation composition. Results from both permutation tests and traditional multivariate analysis suggested different trajectories of vegetation depending on the initial species pool. Vegetation showed a tendency to converge in composition in the lowland over time, independently of initial differences. Estimated changes in relative biomass of the five most abundant species between the upland and the lowland ranged from –89 to +96 %. The ensemble of all other species was reduced by 80%. The most dominant species in the upland, Festuca nigrescens, reduced its abundance in the lowland, shifting from having mainly positive to mainly negative associations with other species.

Conclusions: Mesic grassland ecosystems in the Pyrenees showed strong shifts in plant diversity and composition after a short period of warming and drought, as a consequence of acute vulnerability of some dominant grasses, losses of rare species, and aggregate and trigger effects of originally uncommon forb species.
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