Question: The utility of beta (β-) diversity measures that incorporate information about the degree of taxonomic (dis)similarity between species plots is becoming increasingly recognized. In this framework, the question for this study is: can we define an ecologically meaningful index of β-diversity that, besides indicating simple species turnover, is able to account for taxonomic similarity amongst species in plots?
Methods: First, the properties of existing measures of taxonomic similarity measures are briefly reviewed. Next, a new measure of plot-to-plot taxonomic similarity is presented that is based on the maximal common subgraph of two taxonomic trees. The proposed measure is computed from species presences and absences and include information about the degree of higher-level taxonomic similarity between species plots. The performance of the proposed measure with respect to existing coefficients of taxonomic similarity and the coefficient of Jaccard is discussed using a small data set of heath plant communities. Finally, a method to quantify β-diversity from taxonomic dissimilarities is discussed.
Results: The pro posed measure of taxonomic β-diversity incorporates not only species richness, but also information about the degree of higher-order taxonomic structure between species plots. In this view, it comes closer to a modern notion of biological diversity than more traditional measures of β-diversity. From regression analysis between the new coefficient and existing measures of taxonomic similarity it is shown that there is an evident nonlinearity between the coefficients. This nonlinearity demonstrates that the new coefficient measures similarity in a conceptually different way from previous indices. Also, in good agreement with the findings of previous authors, the regression between the new index and the Jaccard coefficient of similarity shows that more than 80% of the variance of the former is explained by the community structure at the species level, while only the residual variance is explained by differences in the higher-order taxonomic structure of the species plots. This means that a genuine taxonomic approach to the quantification of plot-to-plot similarity is only needed if we are interested in the residual system's variation that is related to the higher-order taxonomic structure of a pair of species plots.