Global change effects on plant communities are magnified by time and the number of global change factors imposed

Published by Stephanie Mayer on

Accurate prediction of community responses to global change drivers (GCDs) is critical given the effects of biodiversity on ecosystem services. There is consensus that human activities are driving species extinctions at the global scale, but debate remains over whether GCDs are systematically altering local communities worldwide. Across 105 experiments that included over 400 experimental manipulations, we found evidence for a lagged response of herbaceous plant communities to GCDs caused by shifts in the identities and relative abundances of species, often without a corresponding difference in species richness. These results provide evidence that community responses are pervasive across a wide variety of GCDs on long-term temporal scales and that these responses increase in strength when multiple GCDs are simultaneously imposed.Global change drivers (GCDs) are expected to alter community structure and consequently, the services that ecosystems provide. Yet, few experimental investigations have examined effects of GCDs on plant community structure across multiple ecosystem types, and those that do exist present conflicting patterns. In an unprecedented global synthesis of over 100 experiments that manipulated factors linked to GCDs, we show that herbaceous plant community responses depend on experimental manipulation length and number of factors manipulated. We found that plant communities are fairly resistant to experimentally manipulated GCDs in the short term (<10 y). In contrast, long-term (≥10 y) experiments show increasing community divergence of treatments from control conditions. Surprisingly, these community responses occurred with similar frequency across the GCD types manipulated in our database. However, community responses were more common when 3 or more GCDs were simultaneously manipulated, suggesting the emergence of additive or synergistic effects of multiple drivers, particularly over long time periods. In half of the cases, GCD manipulations caused a difference in community composition without a corresponding species richness difference, indicating that species reordering or replacement is an important mechanism of community responses to GCDs and should be given greater consideration when examining consequences of GCDs for the biodiversity–ecosystem function relationship. Human activities are currently driving unparalleled global changes worldwide. Our analyses provide the most comprehensive evidence to date that these human activities may have widespread impacts on plant community composition globally, which will increase in frequency over time and be greater in areas where communities face multiple GCDs simultaneously.