The effects of plant traits on species' responses to present and historical patch configurations and patch age

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Patch configuration is viewed as an important factor affecting the distributions of plant species. Although a number of studies have explored the relationship between plant life-history traits and species' distributions in fragmented landscapes, the effect of individual traits on the dependence of species on historical versus current landscape configurations remains unclear.

We identified the extent to which present (2000s) and historical (1843, 1954, 1980s) patch configurations (area and connectivity) and patch age affected the distributions of 99 species inhabiting dry calcareous grasslands. We used traits related to dispersal, survival, growth and habitat preferences to explain the dependence of 60 of these species on present and historical configurations, and the age of grassland patches.

We found that most of the species had an affinity to currently or historically large, older and more isolated patches. This suggests that many dry grassland species are not in equilibrium with the current landscape, as their distributions still reflect past landscape structures. Rapidly growing species with higher seed bank longevity and nutrient requirements primarily occur in young, large grassland patches whereas species with the opposite traits occur in older, historically large and currently more isolated smaller patches. We hypothesise that patch quality is the reason why different species occupy patches of different age. Species occupying young, large patches commonly disperse by endozoochory. By contrast, no dispersal trait is associated with species occupying old, usually isolated patches. Our results suggest that species occupying old patches are exposed to higher potential risk of extinction, as their distributions are probably limited by the low number and connectivity of available suitable patches and poor dispersal ability. We thus suggest that the dynamics of these species can effectively be supported by improving the quality of young grassland patches.

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