High diversity in Armenian grasslands: EDGG Field Workshop provides standardized data for the first time

The post provided by Jürgen Dengler & Idoia Biurrun

The expedition team on the Selim pass. Photo credit: Jürgen Dengler.

Behind the paper post referring to the article Biodiversity of dry grasslands in Armenia: First results from the 13th EDGG Field Workshop in Armenia by Aleksanyan et al. published in Palaearctic Grasslands.

Armenia, a land-locked country in the Western Palaearctic, belongs to two of the recognized 34 global biodiversity hotspots, the Caucasus and the Irano-Anatolian region (Mittermeier et al., 2004). Despite this global importance, there are still many knowledge gaps in the country’s biodiversity in many taxonomic groups. Moreover, while it is known that Armenia hosts a wide range of different grasslands types, they have never been classified syntaxonomically, which would allow to place them into the Western Palaearctic classification systems of EuroVegChecklist (Mucina et al., 2016) and the refined EUNIS habitats (Chytrý et al., 2020). This prompted the Eurasian Dry Grassland Group (EDGG; www.edgg.org), the IAVS Working Group devoted to the study and conservation of natural and semi-natural grasslands in the Palaearctic, to conduct an international Field Workshop (research expedition) to Armenia to study the diversity of dry grasslands.

Picnic in the field – an important element of EDGG Field Workshops. Photo credit: Jürgen Dengler.

For 10 days, an international team of botanists and zoologists sampled various types of dry grasslands in 16 sites throughout the country. Sampling took place with the standardized EDGG sampling methodology, which has been refined over the years (Dengler et al., 2016). The core of this sampling are nested plots (the so-called EDGG Biodiversity Plots) with seven different grain sizes from 0.0001 to 100 m², of which all up to 10 m² have two replicates in two opposite corners of the 100-m² plot. In each of these subplots species composition (presence/absence) is sampled carefully for vascular plants and terricolous bryophytes and lichens. At 10 m², also the cover of all occurring species is estimated in per cent, and a wide range of structural and environmental variables are recorded according to a standardized protocol. Sampling of “biodiversity plots” is complemented by additional “normal plots”, equivalent to one 10-m² subplot of a nested plot, to cover a wider range of different vegetation types. Since EDGG deals not only with plants but with the complete biodiversity of grasslands, we intend to combine our standardized vegetation sampling with that of other taxonomic groups. While in the past, we managed to involve specialists of spiders, leaf hoppers and butterflies to try to develop a matching sampling scheme for these groups to allow multi-taxon analyses, in Armenia two orthopterologists were part of the team who sampled grasshoppers, crickets and mantids. This resulted not only in nice data but also in a methodological proposal for orthopteroid sampling (Hilpold et al., 2020).

Species determination in the evenings. Photo credit: Jürgen Dengler.

The days in Armenia were full of sampling under intense sun and also some heavy rain, and in the evenings, we were busy with determining the unclear samples from the field or prepare them for later determination. In total, we sampled 29 EDGG Biodiversity Plots and 53 additional 10-m² plots. While the determination of the critical vascular plants, as well as the bryophytes and lichens, took about one year after the Field Workshop, now the biodiversity data are ready for analyses together with the soil parameters. We plan one paper on the syntaxonomy of these grasslands. Based on the species composition, the majority of plots seem to belong to the class Festuco-Brometea, within which three main types, meso-xeric, xeric on deep soils and xeric on rocky soils could be distinguished in the field, the first two very similar to the orders known from Eastern Europe, Brachypodietalia pinnati and Festucetalia valesiacae, while the latter probably does not belong to any European order. Moreover, on screes and in the lower, warmer and drier sites, we found grassland vegetation that likely does not belong to any European class. We are now looking forward to developing a regional classification system and see how it actually fits into the Western Palaearctic system. Equally appealing is the study of the biodiversity and its underlying patterns, where this time, we will be able to compare not only three, but four contrasting taxonomic groups. What can be said already now is that the grasslands of Armenia are really species-rich, with an average of 51.3 species and a maximum of 91 species of vascular plants, bryophytes and lichens on 10 m². In fact, this is 50% richer than the dry grasslands we sampled in the same year in the central valleys of the Alps in Switzerland, with a similar mixture of meso-xeric, xeric and rocky (Dengler et al., 2020b). It is a real riddle, why there are such big differences!

The richest of all biodiversity plots sampled during the expedition (overview above, detail below), in Ardanish, near lake Sevan. It was a meso-xeric (semi-dry) grassland, which likely belongs to the order Brachypodietalia pinnati. We found in one of the 10-m² corners 91 species and about 130 in the 100 m² (there is still some fine-tuning going on to match the species names of both corners). Photo credit: Jürgen Dengler.

Armenia was already the 13th such Field Workshop. This tradition was founded 2009 in Transylvania, Romania, where during the 1st Field Workshop some of the (still valid) world records of fine-grain vascular plant species richness were recorded (Wilson et al., 2012). Since then, one or two such Field Workshops have been conducted every year, in various places throughout the Palaearctic biogeographic realm, from Spain in the west to Siberia in the east. The resulting regional datasets have given rise to a series of studies on biodiversity patterns and their drivers (the latest being Dembicz et al., 2020 from Bulgaria) and phytosociology (the latest being Kuzemko et al., 2014 from Podolia, Ukraine). With the years, it became evident that the collected data could be even more valuable if we combine all of them in a common database and analyze them jointly. Together with similar multi-scale datasets of other authors this gave then rise to the GrassPlot database (Dengler et al., 2018), which now contains records of more than 5,000 nested-plot series and about 200,000 precisely delimited individual plots, often including careful treatment of bryophytes and lichens and standardized in-situ measurement of structural and environmental data. In a first overarching analysis, we recently found that the power function is generally the best model to describe species-area relationships in Palaearctic grasslands (Dengler et al., 2020). A whole series of further analytical papers are submitted or in preparation…

We also found many orthopteroid insects like this gigantic Bradyporus diltatatus. Photo credit: Jürgen Dengler.

However, EDGG Field Workshops are not only very productive in terms of research output, they are also a lot of fun. Important for the success is that their participants are highly diverse in terms of nationality, age and position (from Master student to professor). Beyond collecting high-quality data and getting to know the flora of a region really well, another aspect always is to demonstrate and discuss methods of sampling. In May 2020, we had planned to conduct the 14th EDGG Field Workshop in Ukrainian steppes along climatic gradients, hosted by Denys Vynokurov and Ivan Moysiyenko. Unfortunately, this was not possible due to the Corona pandemic. Instead of cancelling the event, we postponed it to 2021. Let’s hope that until May next year there is a vaccination against Covid-19 and we, vegetation ecologists and biodiversity researchers, can do our fieldwork again as usual.

If you found this report from the 13th EDGG Field Workshop appealing, then watch out for EDGG’s announcement of future Field Workshops. There are even travel grants to support the participation of young IAVS members.

Closing dinner on the last evening in a restaurant in Erevan, for the first time with an EDGG cake, cut by the local host Alla Aleksanyan (right) and Deputy Field Workshop Coordinator Idoia Biurrun (middle). Photo credit: Jürgen Dengler.


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Brief personal summary: Jürgen Dengler is Professor of Vegetation Ecology in the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW). He is vegetation scientist with strong interests in conservation biology, macroecology, ecoinformatics and theoretical ecology. Idoia Biurrun is Associate Professor in the University of the Basque Country. Both authors study Palaearctic grassland ecosystems and are members of the Executive Committee of the Eurasian Dry Grassland Group (EDGG). They both also form the Executive Committee of the GrassPlot database, Jürgen Dengler as Custodian and Idoia Biurrun as Deputy Custodian.