New publication: The relative importance of biotic and abiotic processes for structuring plant communities through time

Elizabeth S. Jeffers, Michael B. Bonsall, Cynthia A. Froyd, Stephen J. Brooks and Katherine J. Willis (2014) The relative importance of biotic and abiotic processes for structuring plant communities through time Journal of Ecology DOI: 10.1111/1365-2745.12365

Abstract

The question of the relative importance of biotic interactions versus abiotic drivers for structuring plant communities is highly debated but largely unresolved. Here we investigate the relative importance of mean July air temperature, nitrogen (N) availability and direct plant interactions in determining the millennial-scale population dynamics through the Holocene (10,700 cal. yrs BP – 5,200 cal. yrs BP) for four temperate tree taxa in the Scottish Highlands.

A variety of dynamic population models were fitted to our palaeoecological time-series data in order to determine the mechanism(s) by which each driver affected the population biomass dynamics of Betula (birch), Pinus (pine), Alnus (alder) and Quercus (oak). Akaike Information Criterion weights identified the best model(s) for describing the relationship between each population and driver. The relative importance of these drivers was then assessed by the ability of each model to predict the observed population biomass dynamics. We also measured the change in goodness of fit of each model over time.

We found that models of intra- and inter-specific plant interactions described the plant population dynamics better than temperature- or N-dependent population growth models over the 5,000-yr study period. The best-fitting models were constant over time for pine, alder and oak. However, the plant-N availability and plant-temperature models provided a progressively better fit to the birch data when temperatures rose and N availability declined, suggesting increasing importance of these abiotic factors coincident with changing conditions.