The herbaceous understory represents a key component of forest biodiversity across temperate forests of Europe. Here, we quantified changes in the diversity and composition of the forest understory layer in representative Slovenian forest ecosystems between 2004/05 and 2014/15. In total, 60 plots were placed across 10 different managed forest types, ranging from lowland deciduous and mid-altitude mesic mixed forests to mountain conifer forests. This network is part of an international network of sites launched within the ICP Forests Programme aimed to assess the condition of forests in Europe. To examine how disturbance influenced understory dynamics, we estimated the disturbance impacts considering both natural and/or anthropogenic disturbances that cause significant damage to trees and to ground-surface layers, including ground-vegetation layers and upper-soil layers. Species richness across 10 sites (gamma diversity) significantly decreased from 272 to 243 species during the study period, while mean species richness per site did not significantly change. The mean value of site level Shannon diversity indices and evenness significantly increased. The cover of most common plant species increased during the monitoring period. The mean value of disturbance estimates per site increased from 0.8% in 2004/05 (ranging from 0% to 2.5%) to 16.3% in 2014/15 (ranging from 5.0% to 38.8%), which corresponded to a reduction in total vegetation cover, including tree-layer cover. More disturbed sites showed larger temporal changes in species composition compared to less disturbed sites, suggesting that forest disturbances caused understory compositional shifts during the study period. Rather than observing an increase in plant diversity due to disturbance, our results suggest a short-term decrease in species number, likely driven by replacement of more specialized species with common species.
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