Linking process to pattern in community assembly in dry evergreen Afromontane forest of Hararghe highland, Southeast Ethiopia
Keywords:Limiting similarity, environmental filtering, functional traits, spatial scale, non-metric dimensional scaling
Many scholars have attempted to identify the role of deterministic and stochastic processes in community assembly, but there is no consensus on which processes dominate and at what spatial scales they occur. To shed light on this issue, we tested two non-exclusive processes, scale-dependent hypotheses: (i) that limiting similarity dominates on small spatial scales; and (ii) that environmental filtering does so on a large scale. To achieve this, we studied the functional patterns of dry evergreen Afromontane forest communities along elevation gradients in southeastern Ethiopia using floristic and functional trait data from fifty-four 0.04 ha plots. We found evidence of functional overdispersion on small spatial scales, and functional clustering on large spatial scales. The observed clustering pattern, consistent with an environmental filtering process, was most evident when environmental differences between a pair of plots were maximized. To strengthen the link between the observed community functioning pattern and the underlying process of environmental filtering, we demonstrated differences in the topographical factors of the most abundant species found at lower and higher elevations and examined whether their abundance varied over time or changed with time along the elevation. We found (i) that the largest functional differences in the community (observed between lower and upper dry evergreen Afromontane forest assemblages) were primarily the result of strong topographical influence; and (ii) that the abundance of such species varied along the elevation gradient. Variation in stand structure and tree species diversity within the DAF plots shows that topography is among the important drivers of local species distribution and hence the maintenance of tree diversity in dry Afromontane forest.
Our results support the conclusion that environmental filtering at large spatial scales is the primary mechanism for community merging, since functional grouping pattern was associated with species similarities in topographic variation, ultimately leading to changes in species abundances along the gradient. There was also evidence of competitive exclusion at more homogeneous and smaller spatial scales, where plant species compete effectively for resources.
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