Testing the hypothesis of hierarchical predictability in ecological restoration and succession
To advance predictive ecology, the hypothesis of hierarchical predictability proposes that community measures for which species are interchangeable (e.g., structure and species richness) are more predictable than measures for which species identity matters (e.g., community composition). Predictability is hypothesized to decrease for response measures in order of the following categories: structure, species richness, function, and species composition. We tested this hypothesis using a 14-year, oak savanna–prairie restoration experiment that removed non-native pine plantations at 24 sites in northwestern Ohio, USA. Based on 24 response measures, the data showed minimal support for the hypothesis, because response measures varied in predictability within categories. Half of response measures had over half their variability modeled using fixed (restoration treatment and year) and random plot effects, and these “predictable” measures occurred in all four categories. Pine basal area, environment (e.g., soil texture), and antecedent vegetation accounted for over half the variation in change within the first three post-restoration years for 77% of response measures. Change between the 3rd and 14th years was less predictable, but most restoration measures increased favorably via sites achieving them in unique ways. We propose that variation will not conform with the hypothesis of hierarchical predictability in ecosystems with vegetation dynamics driven by stochastic processes such as seed dispersal, or where vegetation structure and species richness are influenced by species composition. The ability to predict a community measure may be more driven by the number of combinations of casual factors affecting a measure than by the number of values it can have.