Nunes, A., Tápia, S., Pinho, P., Correia, O., Branquinho, C. (2015) Advantages of the point-intercept method for assessing functional diversity in semi-arid areas.iForest - Biogeosciences and Forestry, 8, 471-479. DOI:10.3832/ifor1261-007 (IF2015 1,070; Q2 Forestry)
Semi-arid areas are particularly susceptible to the loss of biodiversity as a consequence of global change. Species functional traits are key drivers of functioning and resilience of ecosystems, thus monitoring of functional trait diversity is urgently needed. The assessment of functional diversity requires the quantification of species and/or their traits in the field, though there is no consensus on the best plant-sampling method to be used. The aim of this study was to compare the performance of the point-intercept (PT) method with two area-based approaches, the modified-Whittaker (MW) and Dengler (DE) methods, to assess functional diversity in semi-arid areas. The herbaceous community of a savanna-like Mediterranean woodland was surveyed at the two extremes of a regional precipitation gradient (dry to wet). Efficiency in the quantification of species/ traits, precision of cover estimates, and their effect on functional diversity metrics computed for eight functional traits were compared. Results showed that the examined methods differed in their efficiency in quantifying species/traits in both sites. With the DE method, fewer species were detected than with the MW and PT methods, which yielded similar values. The PT method had a higher precision in the quantification of both dominant and non-dominant species/traits. It also had a higher community evenness, mainly in the wet location, which allowed the analysis of a greater number of species/traits within the 80% “dominance” threshold (i.e., species representing 80% of the relative cover of community), a critical aspect of functional diversity assessments. In addition, the PT method yielded higher estimates for multi-trait functional evenness, as well as different estimates (either higher or lower than MW and DE) of single-trait community weighted means (for N-fixing ability and flowering onset), functional dispersion (for N-fixing ability and specific leaf area), and functional evenness (for height and flowering onset). In spite of the observed differences among methods in the assessment of functional diversity, the PT approach demonstrated important advantages in the non-destructive, fine-scale monitoring of semi-arid areas, where “less dominant” species may play a critical role.