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The rate of climate change might exceed the migration capacity of plants, particularly where habitats became fragmented by human land use. Except for some tree species, the extent to which habitat fragmentation decreases migration rates has nevertheless been little evaluated. Here, we compare simulated migration rates of understorey herbs, which comprise the big part of temperate forest plant diversity, under varying levels of fragmentation at a continental scale.
We combined simulations of demography and seed dispersal to simulate migration of 16 hypothetical forest herb species through a virtual, continuously forested landscape of 50 × 50 km and through 1179 50 × 50 km regions spanning most of the European Union's territory plus Norway and Switzerland. Each region was subdivided into a 250-m raster of sites, which were rated as suitable to a species if covered by forest according to current land cover maps and future land cover scenarios. The 16 hypothetical species were defined by combinations of those trait values that control demographic and dispersal processes.
In continuous forests, simulated migration rates of the 16 species varied between ~95 and ~225 m/y. Current forest fragmentation was predicted to reduce migration rates to about 70% on average across the continent, but to below 25% in many parts of western and southern Europe. Under future land use, migration rates might slightly increase in economically marginal regions.
Our results indicate that even on a continuously forested continent most understorey herbs would be unable to track climate warming and that habitat fragmentation will reduce migration rates to values an order of magnitude lower than expected climate velocities in parts of Europe. We conclude that, instead of concentrating conservation efforts in protected areas, facilitating the movement of species through the average countryside should become a conservation priority.