Thirty years of compositional change in an old-growth temperate forest: the role of topographic gradients in oak-maple dynamics

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Ecological communities are structured in response to spatial and temporal variation of numerous factors, including edaphic conditions, biotic interactions, climatic patterns and disturbance regimes. Widespread anthropogenic factors such as timber harvesting can create long-lasting impacts, obscuring the relationship between community structure and environmental conditions. Minimally impacted systems such as old-growth forests can serve as a useful ecological baseline for predicting long-term compositional shifts. We utilized decadal tree species sampling data (1979–2010) divided into three strata (understory, midstory, overstory) to examine temporal changes in relative abundances and spatial distributions of dominant taxa, as well as overall shifts in community composition, in a relatively pristine Appalachian old-growth forest in eastern Kentucky, USA. Quercus and Carya species persisted mainly as mature canopy trees with decreasing juvenile recruitment, especially in mesic areas. In contrast, Acer, Fagus, and other mesophytic species were abundant and spatially widespread in subcanopy layers suggesting these species are more likely to recruit in gap-scale canopy openings. In the overstory, mesophytic species were spatially restricted to lower and mid-slope mesic habitats. Temporal changes in community composition were most evident in the understory and tended to be greater in mesic areas, a trend seemingly driven by recruitment failure among xerophytic species. In subcanopy vegetation we discovered a loss of distinction through time among the ecological community designations established following the 1979 survey (Chestnut oak, Mixed mesophytic, and Beech). The overstory was more stable through time, suggesting a storage effect where long-lived trees have maintained a particular community composition through time in areas where regeneration opportunities are minimal under current environmental conditions. Overall, sitewide canopy succession is occurring slowly in the absence of major disturbance, and topography-driven environmental variation appears to have an important local-scale filtering effect on communities.


"This is publication 45 of the Lilley Cornett Woods Appalachian Research Station of Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Kentucky. Much thanks goes to all those who assisted in data collection over the years including Bridgett Abernathy, Mary Arthur, Millie Hamilton, Robert Paratley, Kaitlin Perry, Amy Reese, Rob Watts, and among many others. This project represents a long-term project initiated and led for many years by Robert N. Muller and the authors are grateful for his scientific contribution and vision. This work has been supported in part by the University of Dayton Office for Graduate Academic Affairs through the Graduate Student Summer Fellowship Program." (p. 13)