Improving the prediction of plant species distribution and community composition by adding edaphic to topo-climatic variables

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Questions:Soil properties have been widely shown to influence plant growth and distribution. However, the degree to which edaphic variables can improve models based on topo-climatic variables is still unclear. In this study, we tested the roles of seven edaphic variables, namely (1) pH; (2) the content of nitrogen and of (3) phosphorus; (4) silt; (5) sand; (6) clay and (7) carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, as predictors of species distribution models in an edaphically heterogeneous landscape. We also tested how the respective influence of these variables in the models is linked to different ecological and functional species characteristics.Location:The Western Alps, Switzerland.Methods:With four different modelling techniques, we built models for 115 plant species using topo-climatic variables alone and then topo-climatic variables plus each of the seven edaphic variables, one at a time. We evaluated the contribution of each edaphic variable by assessing the change in predictive power of the model. In a second step, we evaluated the importance of the two edaphic variables that yielded the largest increase in predictive power in one final set of models for each species. Third, we explored the change in predictive power and the importance of variables across plant functional groups. Finally, we assessed the influence of the edaphic predictors on the prediction of community composition by stacking the models for all species and comparing the predicted communities with the observed community.Results:Among the set of edaphic variables studied, pH and nitrogen content showed the highest contributions to improvement of the predictive power of the models, as well as the predictions of community composition. When considering all topo-climatic and edaphic variables together, pH was the second most important variable after degree-days. The changes in model results caused by edaphic predictors were dependent on species characteristics. The predictions for the species that have a low specific leaf area, and acidophilic preferences, tolerating low soil pH and high humus content, showed the largest improvement by the addition of pH and nitrogen in the model.Conclusions:pH was an important predictor variable for explaining species distribution and community composition of the mountain plants considered in our study. pH allowed more precise predictions for acidophilic species. This variable should not be neglected in the construction of species distribution models in areas with contrasting edaphic conditions.

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