J Plant Ecol ›› 2013, Vol. 6 ›› Issue (1): 101-112.

• Research Articles •

Canopy gap size influences niche partitioning of the ground-layer plant community in a northern temperate forest

Christel C. Kern1,2,*, Rebecca A. Montgomery2, Peter B. Reich2,3 and Terry F. Strong4

1. 1 USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station, 1831 Hwy 169 East, Grand Rapids, MN 55744, USA; 2 Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, 1530 North Cleveland Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55108, USA; 3 Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, University of Western Sydney, Locked Bag 1797, Penrith NSW 2751, Australia; 4 USDA Forest Service, USA, Retired
• Received:2011-12-06 Accepted:2012-04-22 Published:2013-01-25
• Contact: Kern, Christel

Abstract: Aims The Gap Partitioning Hypothesis (GPH) posits that gaps create heterogeneity in resources crucial for tree regeneration in closed-canopy forests, allowing trees with contrasting strategies to coexist along resource gradients. Few studies have examined gap partitioning of temperate, ground-layer vascular plants. We used a ground-layer plant community of a temperate deciduous forest in northern Wisconsin, USA, as a model system to test whether the GPH extends to the relatively species-rich ground layer.
Methods We used a well-replicated experimental approach that included a gap opening gradient (five gap sizes, 6, 10, 20, 30 and 46 m diameter, and undisturbed reference areas), a within-gap location gradient (gap edge to center), and a temporal gradient (0, 2, 6 and 13 years after gap creation). The data were observations of ground-layer plant abundance, published plant traits, and a modeled index of understory light environments. We ordinated the plant abundance data and evaluated the relationships of composition, traits and light environment by gap size, location along the forest-gap transect and time, with several approaches such as correlations, descriptivestatistics, non-parametric tests of group differences and indicator species importance values.
Important findings Ground-layer plant composition and traits differed across gap sizes, within-gap locations and over time. Gaps of all sizes differed in composition from undisturbed areas, and all pair-wise combinations of gap size also differed in composition, except the 6 m from the 10-m gaps. Large gaps (46 m) also displayed within-gap compositional gradients from gap edge to center locations. Compositional differences in gap size were evident 2 years after gap creation and, contrary to our hypotheses, remained different over the 13-year period, even in gaps with crown closure. In contrast to the neutral theory, species functional traits and microenvironmental conditions were related to variation in ground-layer composition. Species with smaller seeds, lower shade tolerance, later bloom times, shorter stature and longer leaves were associated with higher light, more central gap locations, larger gap sizes and greater time since gap creation. The correlation between gap size and ground-layer plant composition and traits provides evidence for gap partitioning by the diverse ground-layer community in this temperate deciduous forest community.

Aims The Gap Partitioning Hypothesis (GPH) posits that gaps create heterogeneity in resources crucial for tree regeneration in closed-canopy forests, allowing trees with contrasting strategies to coexist along resource gradients. Few studies have examined gap partitioning of temperate, ground-layer vascular plants. We used a ground-layer plant community of a temperate deciduous forest in northern Wisconsin, USA, as a model system to test whether the GPH extends to the relatively species-rich ground layer.
Methods We used a well-replicated experimental approach that included a gap opening gradient (five gap sizes, 6, 10, 20, 30 and 46 m diameter, and undisturbed reference areas), a within-gap location gradient (gap edge to center), and a temporal gradient (0, 2, 6 and 13 years after gap creation). The data were observations of ground-layer plant abundance, published plant traits, and a modeled index of understory light environments. We ordinated the plant abundance data and evaluated the relationships of composition, traits and light environment by gap size, location along the forest-gap transect and time, with several approaches such as correlations, descriptivestatistics, non-parametric tests of group differences and indicator species importance values.
Important findings Ground-layer plant composition and traits differed across gap sizes, within-gap locations and over time. Gaps of all sizes differed in composition from undisturbed areas, and all pair-wise combinations of gap size also differed in composition, except the 6 m from the 10-m gaps. Large gaps (46 m) also displayed within-gap compositional gradients from gap edge to center locations. Compositional differences in gap size were evident 2 years after gap creation and, contrary to our hypotheses, remained different over the 13-year period, even in gaps with crown closure. In contrast to the neutral theory, species functional traits and microenvironmental conditions were related to variation in ground-layer composition. Species with smaller seeds, lower shade tolerance, later bloom times, shorter stature and longer leaves were associated with higher light, more central gap locations, larger gap sizes and greater time since gap creation. The correlation between gap size and ground-layer plant composition and traits provides evidence for gap partitioning by the diverse ground-layer community in this temperate deciduous forest community.