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Isolation and patch size drive specialist plant species density within steppe islands: a case study of kurgans in southern Ukraine

Dembicz, Iwona, Moysiyenko, Ivan I., Shaposhnikova, Anastasia, Vynokurov, Denys, Kozub, Łukasz, Sudnik-Wójcikowska, Barbara
Biodiversity and conservation 2016 v.25 no.12 pp. 2289-2307
agricultural land, case studies, conservation areas, habitats, heat, islands, loess, ravines, species diversity, steppes, Ukraine
The fragmentation and isolation of preserved habitat patches within intensive agricultural landscape threaten species survival in steppes. In Ukraine, <5 % of the original steppe area has survived, mostly in nature reserves, loess ravines and kurgans (burial mounds). The latter are small, but relatively numerous objects. The aim of this study was to investigate whether plant species density (= the number of species per plot) within small steppe patches on kurgans differs from that within large steppe enclaves in southern Ukraine. Another aim was to determine the influence of patch area, isolation and heat load index on species density on kurgans. Presence-absence data for vascular plant species were collected on plots of a size of 100 and 1 m². Thirty kurgans and ten sites within large steppe enclaves were sampled. Every noted species was classified as specialist or generalist. For kurgans data on area and degree of isolation were collected. Additionally the heat load index for plots on kurgans was calculated. The density of habitat specialists was higher in larger steppe enclaves than on kurgans at both spatial scales. On kurgans the most important predictors of specialist density were isolation (negative) and kurgan area (positive). The density of generalists was positively affected by the heat load index. Kurgans can provide refuges for steppe plant species. However, our results show that over a longer time period, proximity to larger steppe refuges is important to maintain species diversity within these small patches.