The effect of ecological niche and spatial pattern on the diversity of oak forest vegetation

Background: Ecological niche and spatial processes are known to shape the species composition of plant communities. However, the relative importance of these factors can vary considerably from one habitat to another.

Aims: To determine the effect of environmental conditions and spatial processes on multiple scales on the species composition of forest vegetation, we studied a patchy system consisting of overgrown oak stands of coppice origin on slopes with a southern exposure in a diverse, submontane landscape.

Methods: Spatial patterns were surveyed with the principal coordinate analysis of neighbour matrices method, using a ‘staggered’ matrix to examine the effect of nested spatial scales. The variation partitioning procedure was applied to assess the relative influence of spatial and environmental components. Redundancy analysis was carried out to detect the effect of particular environmental variables.

Results: Vegetation composition was related to environmental variables (mostly water-holding capacity and Ca content), as well as spatial processes, such as dispersal limitation, at the large (ca. 15 km) and medium (ca. 3.5 km–1.0 km) scales, whereas at small scales (<1 km), these factors were not related to species composition.

Conclusions: The vegetation of the studied forests should be considered as a metacommunity, and the main drivers of species composition are species sorting and dispersal limitation.