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A Decade of Plant Species Changes on a Mire in the Italian Alps: Vegetation-Controlled or Climate-Driven Mechanisms?

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Abstract 
Variation of plant species cover on a Sphagnum-dominated mire in the south-eastern Alps of Italy was assessed over a 10-year period in relation to depth to the water table, peat accumulation rate, and climate. Population dynamics of vascular species appeared to be primarily affected by the autogenic process of peat accumulation, which determined the lowering of water-table position at microhabitat scale. Increase of depth to the water table through peat accumulation resulted in increased cover of ericaceous shrubs at previously moister microhabitats. Conversely, graminoid species such as Eriophorum vaginatum, Trichophorum caespitosum, and Scheuchzeria palustris being negatively affected by autogenic peat growth, were forced to shift their niche towards the wetter end of the water-table gradient. Carex limosa and Carex rostrata decreased their cover along the whole gradient in depth to the water table, likely due to multiple processes related to peat accumulation, competition with bryophytes, and a negative feedback due to increased litter deposition. Bryophytes, in particular Sphagnum mosses, appeared more sensitive to climatic conditions, with higher precipitation favouring faster-growing species. Accordingly, Sphagnum fallax and Sphagnum magellanicum increased their cover much more than Sphagnum capillifolium, whereas Polytrichum strictum showed the strongest decrease at sites where S. magellanicum cover increased most.

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