Plant diversity declines with recent land use changes in European Alps

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Against a background of increasing land use intensification on favorable agricultural areas and land abandonment on less arable areas in the Alps, the aim of this investigation was to detect whether and how 10 differently used types of grassland can be distinguished by site factors, plant species composition, and biodiversity. By using a very large number of vegetation surveys (936) that were widely distributed in the Central Alps, site parameters and species composition of the different land use types were compared by discriminant analyses and various biodiversity indices. Results showed that land use is a significant factor affecting the development of different grassland communities with site factors playing a subordinate, yet important role. The 10 land use types studied can be clearly differentiated from one another by single species as well as by species composition. Our study found that the number of plant communities along with the number of species decreases constantly and significantly with increasing land use intensity and on abandoned land. For example, on average, extensively used meadows have more than three times as many species as intensively used meadows. Further, the most even distribution of species (Evenness index) is reached in intensively used meadows, whereas on pastures and abandoned land, some species become dominant forcing other species to recede. The results confirm that due to current trends in agriculture, such as land abandonment and land use intensification, plant diversity in the Alps is decreasing considerably.

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