Changing the gap dynamics paradigm: Vegetative regeneration control on forest response tO disturbance
Understanding the manner in which changes in disturbance regimes will affect forest biodiversity is an important goal of global change research. Prevailing theories of recruitment after disturbance center on the role of pioneer species; predictions of forest biodiversity focus almost exclusively on dispersal and shade tolerance while vegetative reproduction is virtually omitted from models and serious discussions of the topic. However, the persistence of live damaged trees increases understory shade, generates fine-scale environmental heterogeneity, and moderates ecosystem responses to damage, while the sprouting of damaged trees offers a shortcut to reestablishment of the canopy. While a number of studies document snapshots of post-disturbance vegetative reproduction, we lack an understanding of the underlying demographic processes needed in order to both comprehend and predict observed patterns. In this study we quantify the abundance, competitive ability, and interspecific variability of vegetative reproduction in 18 replicated experimental gaps in the southern Appalachians and Carolina Piedmont, USA, in order to assess the potential role of sprouting in driving gap dynamics. Annual rates of damaged adult survival, sprout initiation, growth, and mortality were monitored over four years and compared to the performance of gap-regenerating saplings. Recruitment from sprouts was found to constitute 26-87% of early gap regeneration and forms the dominant pathway of regeneration for some species. Sprouts from recently damaged trees also grow significantly faster than the saplings with which they compete. For all measured demographic rates (damaged tree survival, sprout initiation, number, growth, and survival) differences among species are large and consistent across sites, suggesting that vegetative reproduction is an important and non-neutral process in shaping community composition. Sprouting ability does not correlate strongly with other life-history trade-offs, thus sprouting potentially provides an alternate trait axis in promoting diversity. © 2008 by the Ecological Society of America.
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