Journal Article

Heathlands confronting global change: drivers of biodiversity loss from past to future scenarios

Jaime Fagúndez

in Annals of Botany

Published on behalf of The Annals of Botany Company

Volume 111, issue 2, pages 151-172
Published in print February 2013 | ISSN: 0305-7364
Published online December 2012 | e-ISSN: 1095-8290 | DOI:
Heathlands confronting global change: drivers of biodiversity loss from past to future scenarios

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Heathlands are dynamic plant communities characterized by a high cover of sclerophyllous, ericoid shrubs that develop over nutrient-poor soils. Interest in the preservation of these habitats in Europe has increased over the last decades, but over this time there has been a general decline in habitat quality, affecting community structure, ecosystem functions and biodiversity. Negative drivers that trigger these changes include land-use changes (i.e. habitat destruction and fragmentation), pollution, climate change, natural succession and human management, as well as the presence of invasive exotic species.


Based on recent scientific literature, the effect of each of these potential drivers on a wide set of factors, including physiological traits, species richness and diversity, community structure, ecosystem functions and soil conditions, is reviewed. The effects of these drivers are generally understood, but the direction and magnitude of factor interactions, whenever studied, have shown high variability.


Habitat loss and fragmentation affect sensitive species and ecosystem functions. The nature of the surrounding area will condition the quality of the heathland remnants by, for example, propagule pressure from invasive species. The dominant ericoid shrubs can be out-competed by vigorous perennial grasses with increased atmospheric nitrogen deposition, although interactions with climate and management practices may either counteract or enhance this process. Grazing or periodic burning promotes heath loss but site-specific combined treatments maintain species diversity and community structure. Climate change alone moderately affects plant diversity, community structure and ecosystem functions. Combined with other factors, climatic changes will condition heath development, mainly with regard to key aspects such as seed set and seedling establishment, rare species occurrence and nutrient cycling in the soil. It is essential to address the effects of not only individual factors, but their interactions, together with land-use history, on heathland development and conservation in order to predict habitat response to future scenarios.

Keywords: Heathlands; Europe; pollution; climate change; land-use change; natural succession; biological invasions; grazing; burning; biodiversity; fynbos; environmental interactions

Journal Article.  16153 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Plant Ecology

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