J Plant Ecol ›› 2019, Vol. 12 ›› Issue (3): 409-418.DOI: 10.1093/jpe/rty038

• Research Articles • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Directional changes of species spatial dispersion and realized environmental niches drive plant community assembly during early plant succession

Werner Ulrich1,*, Markus Klemens Zaplata2, Susanne Winter3 and Anton Fischer4   

  1. 1 Department of Ecology and Biogeography, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Lwowska 1, PL 87–100 Toruń, Poland
    2 Hydrology and Water Resources Management, Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg, Siemens-Halske-Ring 10, D-03046 Cottbus, Germany
    3 Faculty of Forest and Environment, Section of Applied Ecology and Zoology, Eberswalde University of Sustainable Development, Alfred-Möller-Str. 5, D-16225 Eberswalde, Germany
    4 Department of Geobotany, Center of Life and Food Sciences, Technische Universität München, Hans-Carl-von-Carlowitz-Platz 2, D-85354 Freising, Germany
    *Correspondence address. Department of Ecology and Biogeography, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Lwowska 1, PL 87–100 Toruń, Poland. Tel: 0048 56 611 2508; E-mail: ulrichw@umk.pl
  • Received:2018-01-15 Revised:2018-07-31 Accepted:2018-09-28 Online:2018-10-01 Published:2019-07-01



Probabilistic models of species co-occurrences predict aggregated intraspecific spatial distributions that might decrease the degree of joint species occurrences and increase community richness. Yet, little is known about the influence of intraspecific aggregation on the co-occurrence of species in natural, species-rich communities. Here, we focus on early plant succession and ask how changes in intraspecific aggregation of colonizing plant species influence the pattern of species co-existence, richness and turnover.


We studied the early vegetation succession in a six ha constructed catchment within the abandoned part of a lignite mine in NE Germany. At two spatial scales (1- and 25-m2 plots), we compared for each pair of species the intraspecific degree of aggregation and the pattern of co-occurrence and compared observed relationships with temporal changes in important species functional traits.

Important Findings

The majority of species occurred in an aggregated manner, particularly in the first 2 years of succession. In pairwise comparisons, we found an excess of segregated species occurrences leading to a positive link between intraspecific aggregation and pairwise species segregation as predicted by the aggregation hypothesis, particularly at the lower spatial resolution. The degree of intraspecific aggregation was negatively correlated with the community-wide level of species spatial turnover and with plot species richness. Our results are the first direct confirmation that increasing intraspecific aggregation and interspecific competitive interactions counteract in shaping plant community structure during succession. The respective effects of aggregation were strongest at intermediate states of early succession.

Key words: primary succession, spatial analysis, environmental niche, functional traits, species aggregation