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Data from: Precipitation mediates the effect of human disturbance on the Brazilian Caatinga vegetation

Cite this dataset

Rito, Kátia F. et al. (2016). Data from: Precipitation mediates the effect of human disturbance on the Brazilian Caatinga vegetation [Dataset]. Dryad.


Seasonally dry tropical forests (SDTFs) are one of the most threatened forests worldwide. These species-rich forests not only cope with several acute (e.g. forest loss) and chronic (e.g. overgrazing and firewood extraction) human disturbances, but also with climate change (e.g. longer and more severe droughts); yet, the isolated and combined effects of climate and acute and chronic human disturbances on SDTF vegetation are poorly known. Given the environmental filter imposed by drought in SDTFs, the composition and structure of vegetation is expected to be strongly associated with annual precipitation, and thus the effects of human disturbances on vegetation may also depend on precipitation (i.e. interacting effect). We tested these hypotheses in the Brazilian Caatinga – a SDTF threatened by climate change and human disturbances. We evaluated the isolated and combined (both additive and multiplicative) effect of precipitation, a chronic disturbance index and acute disturbance (landscape forest cover) on the diversity, stem density, evenness, taxonomic composition and aboveground biomass of adult trees and shrubs across 19 0.1-ha plots distributed along a disturbance and precipitation gradients. We recorded 5541 stems from 129 species. Precipitation showed a stronger (positive) effect on species diversity than acute and chronic disturbances and, as expected, the effect of disturbance depended on precipitation (interacting effect): i.e. species diversity (especially the number of rare species) was negatively related to forest loss but positively related to chronic disturbance in wetter sites, whereas in drier sites, species diversity was weakly related to forest cover, but strongly and negatively related to chronic disturbance. Contrary to species diversity, community evenness, stem density and biomass were weakly related to all predictors. Synthesis. Precipitation appears to be a strong environmental filter determining the distribution of water-demanding plant species. Chronic disturbance in wetter (high-productive) forests may favour species diversity by increasing ecosystem heterogeneity (intermediate disturbance hypothesis). Yet, the biodiversity costs of chronic disturbance are higher in drier (low-productive) forests; i.e. there is a co-limitation imposed by drought and disturbance in drier forests. Overall, our findings indicate that rapid climatic changes in the region will probably have strong negative effects on this SDTF.

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