Subtle ecological gradient in the tropics triggers high species-turnover in a local geographical scale

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Abstract

Our perception of diversity, including both alpha- and beta-diversity components, depends on spatial scale. Studies of spatial variation of the latter are just starting, with a paucity of research on beta-diversity patterns at smaller scales. Understanding these patterns and the processes shaping the distribution of diversity is critical to describe this diversity, but it is paramount in conservation too. Here, we investigate the diversity and structure of a tropical community of herbivorous beetles at a reduced local scale of some 10 km2, evaluating the effect of a small, gradual ecological change on this structure. We sampled leaf beetles in the Núi Chúa National Park (S Vietnam), studying changes in alpha- and beta-diversity across an elevation gradient up to 500 m, encompassing the ecotone between critically endangered lowland dry deciduous forest and mixed evergreen forest at higher elevations. Leaf beetle diversity was assessed using several molecular tree-based species delimitation approaches (with mtDNA cox1 data), species richness using rarefaction and incidencebased diversity indexes, and beta-diversity was investigated decomposing the contribution of species turnover and nestedness. We documented 155 species in the area explored and species-richness estimates 1.5-2.0x higher. Species diversity was similar in both forest types and changes in alpha-diversity along the elevation gradient showed an expected local increase of diversity in the ecotone. Beta-diversity was high among forest paths (average Sørensen's dissimilarity = 0.694) and, tentatively fixing at 300 m the boundary between otherwise continuous biomes, demonstrated similarly high beta-diversity (Sørensen's dissimilarity = 0.581), with samples clustering according to biome/elevation. Highly relevant considering the local scale of the study, beta-diversity had a high contribution of species replacement among locales (54.8%) and between biomes (79.6%), suggesting environmental heterogeneity as the dominant force shaping diversity at such small scale, directly and indirectly on the plant communities. Protection actions in the Park, especially these addressed at the imperative conservation of dry forest, must ponder the small scale at which processes shape species diversity and community structure for inconspicuous, yet extraordinarily diverse organisms such as the leaf beetles.

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Nguyen, D. T., & Gómez-Zurita, J. (2016). Subtle ecological gradient in the tropics triggers high species-turnover in a local geographical scale. PLoS ONE, 11(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0156840

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