Biodiversity of Palearctic grasslands: A synthesis
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This article introduces a Special Issue on biodiversity of Palaearctic grasslands and provides a synthesis of the current knowledge on this topic. Four major categories of grasslands can be distinguished in the Palaearctic biogeographic realm: (a) zonal steppes (in areas too dry for forests), (b) arctic-alpine grasslands (in areas too cold for forests), (c) azonal and extrazonal grasslands (where hydrology, soil conditions, relief or natural disturbances within the forest biomes prevent tree growth locally) and (d) secondary grasslands (which replace natural forests in consequence of human land use). We summarize the present knowledge about species richness patterns (mainly of vascular plants) along abiotic and land use gradients. Further, we highlight the usefulness of diversity measures not based on species richness, namely functional diversity, phylogenetic diversity and within-species diversity. The strong differences observed for diversity patterns according to analyzed biodiversity parameter, spatial scale or taxonomic group call for comparative studies and caution when generalizing results. A particular challenge are the extreme plot-scale species richness values found in grasslands of a few European regions. We propose a conceptual model that explains the findings by an interplay of various factors acting at different levels: (i) The largest species pool is expected for habitats under conditions that prevailed over the last few million years, with a slight shift towards intermediate positions, i.e. for the Palaearctic in open, semi-dry, base-rich situations. (ii) The landscape-level species pool is increased by continuity of a grassland patch in space and time and heterogeneity of the surrounding landscape. (iii) The coexistence of regionally available species at a plot scale is due to reduced competitive exclusion according to Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis, mowing once a year without fertilization being particularly effective. Ecosystem functions and services of Palaearctic grasslands are often positively connected to their biodiversity. At the same time, these communities and their biota are nowadays highly endangered. The semi-natural (High Nature Value) grasslands of Europe are mainly threatened by agricultural intensification or abandonment on low-productive sites in remote areas, while the natural steppes of the Palaearctic have largely been destroyed by conversion into arable land. Finally, we present some promising conservation and management approaches and call for a strong and comprehensive Convention on Grassland Conservation.