A novel comparative research platform designed to determine the functional significance of tree species diversity in European forests
One of the current advances in functional biodiversity research is the move away from short-lived test systems towards the exploration of diversity-ecosystem functioning relationships in structurally more complex ecosystems. In forests, assumptions about the functional significance of tree species diversity have only recently produced a new generation of research on ecosystem processes and services. Novel experimental designs have now replaced traditional forestry trials, but these comparatively young experimental plots suffer from specific difficulties that are mainly related to the tree size and longevity. Tree species diversity experiments therefore need to be complemented with comparative observational studies in existing forests. Here we present the design and implementation of a new network of forest plots along tree species diversity gradients in six major European forest types: the FunDivEUROPE Exploratory Platform. Based on a review of the deficiencies of existing observational approaches and of unresolved research questions and hypotheses, we discuss the fundamental criteria that shaped the design of our platform. Key features include the extent of the species diversity gradient with mixtures up to five species, strict avoidance of a dilution gradient, special attention to community evenness and minimal covariation with other environmental factors. The new European research platform permits the most comprehensive assessment of tree species diversity effects on forest ecosystem functioning to date since it offers a common set of research plots to groups of researchers from very different disciplines and uses the same methodological approach in contrasting forest types along an extensive environmental gradient.