Legacy effects of past land use on current biodiversity in a low-intensity farming landscape in Transylvania (Romania)


Ecological impacts of past land use can persist for centuries. While present-day land use is relatively easy to quantify, characterizing historical land uses and their legacies on biodiversity remains challenging. Southern Transylvania in Romania is a biodiversity-rich area which has undergone major political and socio-economic changes, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to two World Wars, communist dictatorship, capitalist democracy, and EU accession—all leading to widespread land-use changes.

We investigated whether present-day community composition of birds, plants, and butterflies was associated with historical land use.

We surveyed birds, plants, and butterflies at 150 sites and classified those sites as forest, arable land, or managed grassland for six epochs using historical maps from the 1870s, 1930s, and 1970s, satellite imagery from 1985 to 2000, and field visits in 2012. Sites were labelled permanent if they had the same land use at all epochs and non-permanent otherwise. We used clustering and PERMANOVA based on community similarity to test for associations between community composition and land-use history.

We found significant differences (p = 0.030) in bird communities between permanent and non-permanent forest sites, and permanent and non-permanent grassland sites (p = 0.051). No significant associations were found among plants or butterflies and land-use history.

Bird communities were associated with historical land use, though plants and butterflies were not. Historical land-use change in our study area was likely not sufficiently intense to cross relevant ecological thresholds that would lead to legacy effects in present-day plant and butterfly communities.

Landscape Ecology, 32(2) 429-444
Patrick Culbert
Postdoctoral Researcher
Tobias Kuemmerle
Tobias Kuemmerle
Professor & Head of the Conservation Biogeography Lab