Effects of human trampling on abundance and diversity of vascular plants, bryophytes and lichens in alpine heath vegetation, Northern Sweden

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Annika Jägerbrand
Juha M. Alatalo

This study investigated the effects of human trampling on cover, diversity and species richness in an alpine heath ecosystem in northern Sweden. We tested the hypothesis that proximity to trails decreases plant cover, diversity and species richness of the canopy and the understory. We found a significant decrease in plant cover with proximity to the trail for the understory, but not for the canopy level, and significant decreases in the abundance of deciduous shrubs in the canopy layer and lichens in the understory. Proximity also had a significant negative impact on species richness of lichens. However, there were no significant changes in species richness, diversity or evenness of distribution in the canopy or understory with proximity to the trail. While not significant, liverworts, acrocarpous and pleurocarpous bryophytes tended to have contrasting abundance patterns with differing proximity to the trail, indicating that trampling may cause shifts in dominance hierarchies of different groups of bryophytes. Due to the decrease in understory cover, the abundance of litter, rock and soil increased with proximity to the trail. These results demonstrate that low-frequency human trampling in alpine heaths over long periods can have major negative impacts on lichen abundance and species richness. To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate that trampling can decrease species richness of lichens. It emphasises the importance of including species-level data on non-vascular plants when conducting studies in alpine or tundra ecosystems, since they often make up the majority of species and play a significant role in ecosystem functioning and response in many of these extreme environments.

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