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PhD Thesis

Plant Species and Functional Diversity along Altitudinal Gradients, Southwest Ethiopian Highlands

Desalegn Wana (10/2009)

Support: Carl Beierkuhnlein

Summary

Understanding how biodiversity is organized across space and time has long been a central focus of ecologists and biogeographers. Altitudinal patterns of richness gradients are one of such striking patterns in the landscape. Despite its historical and ecological importance as a heuristic natural experimental site for development of ecological theories, the emergent patterns and mechanisms that structure them are poorly understood. This is partly because of the complex relationships of species to the environment and the choice of the response variable itself, i.e. using taxonomic richness as a metrics of diversity. This thesis, therefore, applies plant functional types (hereafter PFTs) approach to study the response of vegetation to environmental factors in the southwest Ethiopian highlands. It focuses on the classification of the vegetation into a few main plant functional response categories and relate them to environmental variables. For pattern identification and mechanistic explanations, a deconstructive approach of the taxonomic richness into its constituent components was used. Furthermore, the potential effects of land use/land cover change and global warming on the biodiversity of the study area was investigated.

The results reveal that the application of plant functional types is a promising tool to understand vegetation-environment relationships. Local topographic attributes (altitude and slope) and soil properties found to structure the variance in the relative abundance of PFTs along environmental gradients. Moreover, specific response to drought favours the abundance of species with thorns/spines and tussocks in the lowlands as opposed to chilling which favours rosettes and rhizomes PFTs in the highlands. Concerning patterns of richness along altitudinal gradients, various structures of richness appear for total vascular plant species and growth forms. Woody plants, graminoids and climbers showed a uni-modal structure while ferns and herbs revealed an increasing pattern of richness along the altitudinal gradient. By contrast, total vascular plants species richness did not show any strong response to altitudinal gradients. Climate related water-energy dynamics, species area relationships due to the physical shape of the mountain, local topographic and soil conditions were found to be predominant factors structuring the observed richness in the study area.


The threats to biodiversity loss due to land use/land cover change and global warming is eminent in the study area. Land conversion for agricultural purposes was a pervasive process that had a deleterious effect on the biodiversity of the study area. Population growth, socio-economic challenges (poverty) and government policy regimes drive land cover change processes. In addition, recent climate change poses a serious challenge to the biodiversity of the study area. The results of model predictions indicated that biodiversity of the study area will suffer severe consequences of lowland biotic attrition (i.e. the net loss of species richness in the tropical lowlands caused by altitudinal range shifts in the absence of new species arriving), range gap shifts and contraction, and extinction due to expected warming at the end of this century. The model also predicted that endangered and endemic species with restricted elevational ranges will disproportionately suffer from range contraction and extinction due to warming.


In conclusion, the plant functional types approach was found to be an essential tool to reduce complexity of the vegetation of the study system and to elucidate vegetation-environment relationships. Moreover, the identification of emergent patterns and attributing them to mechanistic explanations are pre-requisites for conservation planning to save biodiversity of the study area. The study also evidenced that land use/land cover change and global warming will present strong threats to the loss of biodiversity in the study area. Salvaging biodiversity in the future requires the consideration of the effect of land use and climate change on vegetation responses. Consequently, nature conservation strategies and future reserve designs should take into account options of human assisted migration across fragmented landscapes and creating dispersal routes for species to track to new thermal niches.

last modified 2010-10-18