Light and warming drive forest understorey community development in different environments

Haben Blondeel, Michael P. Perring, Leen Depauw, Emiel De Lombaerde, Dries Landuyt, Pieter De Frenne, Kris Verheyen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Citations (Scopus)


Plant community composition and functional traits respond to chronic drivers such as climate change and nitrogen (N) deposition. In contrast, pulse disturbances from ecosystem management can additionally change resources and conditions. Community responses to combined environmental changes may further depend on land-use legacies. Disentangling the relative importance of these global change drivers is necessary to improve predictions of future plant communities. We performed a multifactor global change experiment to disentangle drivers of herbaceous plant community trajectories in a temperate deciduous forest. Communities of five species, assembled from a pool of 15 forest herb species with varying ecological strategies, were grown in 384 mesocosms on soils from ancient forest (forested at least since 1850) and postagricultural forest (forested since 1950) collected across Europe. Mesocosms were exposed to two-level full-factorial treatments of warming, light addition (representing changing forest management) and N enrichment. We measured plant height, specific leaf area (SLA) and species cover over the course of three growing seasons. Increasing light availability followed by warming reordered the species towards a taller herb community, with limited effects of N enrichment or the forest land-use history. Two-way interactions between treatments and incorporating intraspecific trait variation (ITV) did not yield additional inference on community height change. Contrastingly, community SLA differed when considering ITV along with species reordering, which highlights ITV’s importance for understanding leaf morphology responses to nutrient enrichment in dark conditions. Contrary to our expectations, we found limited evidence of land-use legacies affecting community responses to environmental changes, perhaps because dispersal limitation was removed in the experimental design. These findings can improve predictions of community functional trait responses to global changes by acknowledging ITV, and subtle changes in light availability. Adaptive forest management to impending global change could benefit the restoration and conservation of understorey plant communities by reducing the light availability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1681-1696
Number of pages16
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2020


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