Question: How does Alnus alnobetula colonization affect plant communities in sub-alpine grasslands undergoing land abandonment on a regional scale?
Location: Savoie, French Alps.
Methods: Variations within and between communities were monitored in 243 plots within three types of stands representing an A. alnobetula colonization chronosequence from grassland to dense vegetation. They were tested for species richness, species strategies and species distribution through multivariate analysis. Regional variations were assessed at three sites along a rain shadow gradient.
Results: We detected a convergence of the understorey communities along an A. alnobetula colonization gradient at all sites, associated with a reduction in species richness and the replacement of stress related strategists by competitor strategists. This convergence was unaffected by the rain shadow gradient although it was a key factor of plant distribution.
Conclusions: The dense cover and the soil properties provided by A. alnobetula stands buffered the heterogeneity of sub-alpine communities induced by a rain shadow gradient throughout the study region. It facilitated the development a homogeneous understorey community dominated by competitor related strategists while excluding grasslands stress adapted species through competition processes. The resulting community, although species-poor, has an interesting conservation value. Accordingly, as a ‘native invader’, A. alnobetula does not display typical traits of biological invaders. Future experimental research on the interactions between A. alnobetula and components of the understorey would be particularly interesting in a severe environment that promotes facilitation among plants.