This study analyses the effects of anthropogenic disturbance on plant diversity and community attributes of a sacred grove (montane subtropical forest) at Swer in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya in northeast India. The undisturbed, moderately disturbed and highly disturbed stands were identified within the sacred grove on the basis of canopy cover, light interception and tree (cbh ≥ 15 cm) density. The undisturbed forest stand had >40% canopy cover, >50% light interception and a density of 2103 trees per hectare, whereas the highly disturbed stand had <10% canopy cover, <10% light interception and 852 trees per hectare. The moderately disturbed stand occupied the intermediate position with respect to these parameters. The study revealed that the mild disturbance favoured species richness, but with increased degree of disturbance, as was the case in the highly disturbed stand, the species richness markedly decreased. The number of families of angiosperms was highest (63) in the undisturbed stand, followed by the moderately (60) and highly disturbed (46) stands. The families Rubiaceae, Asteraceae and Poaceae were the dominant families in the sacred forest. Rubiaceae was represented by 11, 14 and 10 species in the undisturbed, moderately disturbed and highly disturbed stands, respectively, whilst the family Asteraceae had 16 species in the moderately disturbed stand and 14 species in the highly disturbed stand. The number of families represented by a single species was reduced significantly from 33 in the undisturbed stand to 23 in the moderately and 21 in the highly disturbed stand. The similarity index was maximum (71%) between the undisturbed and moderately disturbed stand and minimum (33%) between the undisturbed and highly disturbed stands. The Margalef index, Shannon diversity index and evenness index exhibited a similar trend, with highest values in the moderately disturbed stand. In contrast, the Simpson dominance index was highest in the highly disturbed stand. There was a sharp decline in tree density and basal area from the undisturbed (2103 trees ha−1 and 26.9 m2 ha−1) to the moderately disturbed (1268 trees ha−1 and 18.6 m2 ha−1) and finally to the highly disturbed (852 trees ha−1 and 7.1 m2 ha−1) stand. Density–girth curves depicted a successive reduction in number of trees in higher girth classes from the undisturbed to the moderately and highly disturbed stands. The log-normal dominance–distribution curve in the undisturbed and moderately disturbed stands indicated the complex and stable nature of the community. However, the short-hooked curve obtained for the highly disturbed stand denoted its simple and unstable nature.
DisturbanceMontane subtropical forestPlant diversitySacred groveTree population structure