Disturbance may cause community composition across sites to become more or less homogenous, depending on the importance of different processes involved in community assembly. In north-eastern North America and Europe local (alpha) diversity of forest plants is lower in forests growing on former agricultural fields (recent forests) than in older (ancient) forests, but little is known about the influence of land-use history on the degree of compositional differentiation among sites (beta diversity).
Here we analyse data from 1446 sites in ancient and recent forests across 11 different landscapes in north-eastern North America and Europe to demonstrate decreases in beta diversity and in the strength of species–environment relationships in recent vs. ancient forests.
The magnitude of environmental variability among sites did not differ between the two forest types. This suggests the difference in beta diversity between ancient and recent forests was not due to different degrees of environmental heterogeneity, but rather to dispersal filters that constrain the pool of species initially colonizing recent forests.
The observed effects of community homogenization and weakened relationships between species distributions and environmental gradients appear to persist for decades or longer. The legacy of human land-use history in spatial patterns of biodiversity may endure, both within individual sites and across sites, for decades if not centuries.
2007. Vol. 95, 565-573 p.