, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 65-86

Monitoring shifts in plant diversity in response to climate change: a method for landscapes

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Abstract

Improved sampling designs are needed to detect, monitor, and predict plant migrations and plant diversity changes caused by climate change and other human activities. We propose a methodology based on multi-scale vegetation plots established across forest ecotones which provide baseline data on patterns of plant diversity, invasions of exotic plant species, and plant migrations at landscape scales in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA. We established forty two 1000-m2 plots in relatively homogeneous forest types and the ecotones between them on 14 vegetation transects. We found that 64% of the variance in understory species distributions at landscape scales were described generally by gradients of elevation and under-canopy solar radiation. Superimposed on broad-scale climatic gradients are small-scale gradients characterized by patches of light, pockets of fertile soil, and zones of high soil moisture. Eighteen of the 42 plots contained at least one exotic species; monitoring exotic plant invasions provides a means to assess changes in native plant diversity and plant migrations. Plant species showed weak affinities to overstory vegetation types, with 43% of the plant species found in three or more vegetation types. Replicate transects along several environmental gradients may provide the means to monitor plant diversity and species migrations at landscape scales because: (1) ecotones may play crucial roles in expanding the geophysiological ranges of many plant species; (2) low affinities of understory species to overstory forest types may predispose vegetation types to be resilient to rapid environmental change; and (3) ecotones may help buffer plant species from extirpation and extinction.