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Processes of community assembly in an environmentally heterogeneous, high biodiversity region

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Despite decades of study, the relative importance of niche‐based versus neutral processes in community assembly remains largely ambiguous. Recent work suggests niche‐based processes are more easily detectable at coarser spatial scales, while neutrality dominates at finer scales. Analyses of functional traits with multi‐year multi‐site biodiversity inventories may provide deeper insights into assembly processes and the effects of spatial scale. We examined associations between community composition, species functional traits, and environmental conditions for plant communities in the Kouga‐Baviaanskloof region, an area within South Africa's Cape Floristic Region (CFR) containing high α and β diversity. This region contains strong climatic gradients and topographic heterogeneity, and is comprised of distinct vegetation classes with varying fire histories, making it an ideal location to assess the role of niche‐based environmental filtering on community composition by examining how traits vary with environment. We combined functional trait measurements for over 300 species with observations from vegetation surveys carried out in 1991/1992 and repeated in 2011/2012. We applied redundancy analysis, quantile regression, and null model tests to examine trends in species turnover and functional traits along environmental gradients in space and through time. Functional trait values were weakly associated with most spatial environmental gradients and only showed trends with respect to vegetation class and time since fire. However, survey plots showed greater compositional and functional stability through time than expected based on null models. Taken together, we found clear evidence for functional distinctions between vegetation classes, suggesting strong environmental filtering at this scale, most likely driven by fire dynamics. In contrast, there was little evidence of filtering effects along environmental gradients within vegetation classes, suggesting that assembly processes are largely neutral at this scale, likely the result of very high functional redundancy among species in the regional species pool.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2017

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