I teach a course on Belgian forest types to the Bachelor students at our university, in which we visit a famous Belgian forest at the best moment of spring for its beautiful spring flowers.
At first, I was a little bit sceptical about the idea of classifying not only species, but also groups of species together. Was not every forest unique in some way, making exceptions more of the rule?
But during the preparations for this course, I started to appreciate the approach. Based on abiotic conditions of a system, it became possible to predict which combination of species to expect, even on a very small scale. And most surprisingly, it seemed to work pretty fine in real life and I started to develop a nose for indicator species.
The knowledge that a birch forest will develop into a nutrient-poor oak and beech forest if it does not get disturbed or if soil conditions are not too bad is a true help in the interpretation of forest processes. As is the idea that acidification by beech – or much worse: conifers – means an inevitable stop to almost all understory species.
This science of forest types is the exact reason why conservationers know that it might be worth the effort to replace pines by native trees if the typical understory species of the original forest are still present.
It even helps understanding forests at the other side of the world, like the Nothofagus forests of Punta Arenas, where they look so surprisingly similar.
So I will keep an extra eye open when I stroll through a forest, now I know more about their function and structure, especially in springtime, when the most famous indicator species are on display.
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