Are Plant Censuses Carried Out on Small Quadrats More Reliable than on Larger Ones?

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Abstract

Plant censuses are known to be significantly affected by observers' biases. In this study, we checked whether the magnitude of observer effects (defined as the % of total variance) varied with quadrat size: we expected the census repeatability (% of the total variance that is not due to measurement errors) to be higher for small quadrats than for larger ones. Variations according to quadrat size of the repeatability of species richness, Simpson equitability and reciprocal diversity indices, Ellenberg indicator values, plant cover and plant frequency were assessed using 359 censuses of vascular plants. These were carried out independently by four professional botanists during spring 2002 on the same 18 forest plots, each comprising one 400-m2 quadrat, four 4-m2 and four 2-m2 quadrats. Time expenditure was controlled for. General Linear Models using random effects only were applied to the ecological indices to estimate variance components and magnitude of the following effects (if possible): plot, quadrat, observer, plant species and two-way interactions. High repeatability was obtained for species richness and Ellenberg indicator values. Species richness and Ellenberg indicator values were generally more accurate but also more biased in large quadrats. Simpson reciprocal diversity and equitability indices were poorly repeatable (especially equitability) probably because plant cover estimates varied widely among observers, irrespective of quadrat size. Grouping small quadrats usually increased the repeatability of the variable considered (e.g. species richness, Simpson diversity, plant cover) but the number of plant species found on those pooled 16 m2 was much lower than if large plots were sampled. We therefore recommend to use large, single quadrats for forest vegetation monitoring.

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