Traits related to species persistence and dispersal explain changes in plant communities subjected to habitat loss

Aim Habitat fragmentation is a major driver of biodiversity loss but it is insufficiently known how much its effects vary among species with different life-history traits; especially in plant communities, the understanding of the role of traits related to species persistence and dispersal in determining dynamics of species communities in fragmented landscapes is still limited. The primary aim of this study was to test how plant traits related to persistence and dispersal and their interactions modify plant species vulnerability to decreasing habitat area and increasing isolation. Location Five regions distributed over four countries in Central and Northern Europe. Methods Our dataset was composed of primary data from studies on the distribution of plant communities in 300 grassland fragments in five regions. The regional datasets were consolidated by standardizing nomenclature and species life-history traits and by recalculating standardized landscape measures from the original geographical data. We assessed the responses of plant species richness to habitat area, connectivity, plant life-history traits and their interactions using linear mixed models. Results We found that the negative effect of habitat loss on plant species richness was pervasive across different regions, whereas the effect of habitat isolation on species richness was not evident. This area effect was, however, not equal for all the species, and life-history traits related to both species persistence and dispersal modified plant sensitivity to habitat loss, indicating that both landscape and local processes determined large-scale dynamics of plant communities. High competitive ability for light, annual life cycle and animal dispersal emerged as traits enabling species to cope with habitat loss. Main conclusions In highly fragmented rural landscapes in NW Europe, mitigating the spatial isolation of remaining grasslands should be accompanied by restoration measures aimed at improving habitat quality for low competitors, abiotically dispersed and perennial, clonal species.