The Limited Role of Canopy Gaps in the Successional Dynamics of a Mature Mixed Quercus Forest Remnant


Geography and Anthropology

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Question: Are canopy gap dynamics responsible for driving the structural and compositional changes that have occurred over a 26-year period in a mature Quercus forest remnant?

Location: Dobbs Natural Area, an unlogged 3.6-ha forest preserve in west-central Indiana, USA.

Methods: We analyzed mapped permanent plot data for a site that illustrates a trend common in Quercus-dominated forests in eastern North America, where recruitment of new stems is dominated by mesophytic, shade-tolerant species such as Acer saccharum, rather than Quercus. We developed a GIS database from stand census measurements taken in 1974 and 2000, employing it to conduct tree-by-tree comparisons that allow direct determination of ingrowth, mortality and survivorship, and to relate the spatial patterns of subcanopy dynamics to canopy gap occurrence.

Results: The re-census shows modest changes in canopy composition, but much greater turnover in the subcanopy. Nearly half of all individuals originally present died; much of this mortality resulted from a major decline in subcanopy Ulmus americana. While overall density remained fairly constant, the subcanopy experienced substantial ingrowth of shade-tolerant Acer saccharum, Fagus grandifolia, and Tilia americana. Canopy gaps, although forming at rates in the upper range of regional averages, did not significantly benefit subcanopy populations of Quercus spp. or most other taxa with limited shade tolerance.

Conclusions: Canopy gaps play a minor role in driving the recent demographic trends of this stand. The spatial and temporal scales of light availability in gaps do not support regeneration of most shade-intolerant species. Compositional change parallels a historical shift in light regimes.