We analyzed variation in the functional composition and diversity of understory plant communities across different forest vegetation types in Slovenia. The study area comprises 10 representative forest sites covering broad gradients of environmental conditions (altitude, geology, light availability, soil type and reaction, nutrient availability, soil moisture), stand structural features and community attributes. The mean and variation of the trait values were quantified by community-weighted means and functional dispersion for four key plant functional traits: plant height, seed mass, specific leaf area and leaf dry matter content. At each study site, forest vegetation was surveyed at two different spatial scales (4 and 100 m2
) in order to infer scale-dependent assembly rules. Patterns of community assembly were tested with a null model approach. We found that both trait means and diversity values responded to conspicuous gradients in environmental conditions and species composition across the studied forests. Our results mainly support the idea of abiotic filtering: more stressful environmental conditions (e.g., high altitude, low soil pH and low nutrient content) were occupied by communities of low functional diversity (trait convergence), which suggests a selective effect for species with traits adapted to such harsh conditions. However, trait convergence was also detected in some more resource-rich forest sites (e.g., low altitude, high soil productivity), most likely due to the presence of competitive understory species with high abundance domination. This could, at least to some extent, indicate the filtering effect of competitive interactions. Overall, we observed weak and inconsistent patterns regarding the impact of spatial scale, suggesting that similar assembly mechanisms are operating at both investigated spatial scales. Our findings contribute to the baseline understanding of the role of both abiotic and biotic constraints in forest community assembly, as evidenced by the non-random patterns in the functional structure of distinct temperate forest understories.
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