Interaction of land management and araucaria trees in the maintenance of landscape diversity in the highlands of southern Brazil

In the southern Brazilian highlands, pre-Columbian societies created domesticated landscapes through the use and management of forests, including nurse Araucaria angustifolia trees, a common conifer in these regions. Nowadays, local smallholders still use traditional practices, such as burning, to promote vegetation for cattle grazing in highland grasslands. Even though burning is normally of small extent and low frequency, such management can slow down natural forest expansion and contribute to the maintenance of grasslands, by opposing the facilitative effect of nurse araucaria trees. To comprehend the interplay between human cultural management, species interactions and the environment, it is important to better understand how these relations affect diversity and composition. Our goal was to investigate how land management, biotic interactions and abiotic factors affect saplings species richness, abundance and composition. We hypothesized that (1) land management would decrease sapling richness and abundance and change sapling composition, (2) nurse araucaria trees would increase species richness and abundance and change sapling composition, and (3) the interactive effect between land management and nurse araucaria trees would shape sapling richness, abundance and composition. Data were collected in unmanaged and managed conditions, both beneath araucaria crowns and in nearby treeless areas. Our results indicate that abundance and species composition are affected by land management and araucaria crown influence. The highest values of sapling abundance were found beneath crowns in unmanaged areas. Species composition changed between all assessed combinations of land management and crown influence. Our study demonstrates the major roles of land management and facilitation in structuring communities, despite the effects of rock and grass cover. Moreover, our results clarify patterns and processes that may emerge in natural highland grasslands, such as the conversion of grasslands into forests and the loss of cultural landscapes when the main local management actions are excluded.