Canopy gaps affect long-term patterns of tree growth and mortality in mature and old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest Public Deposited

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  • Canopy gaps created by tree mortality can affect the speed and trajectory of vegetation growth, species’ population dynamics, and spatial heterogeneity in mature forests. Most studies focus on plant development within gaps, yet gaps also affect the mortality and growth of surrounding trees, which influence shading and root encroachment into gaps and determine whether, and how quickly, a gap becomes occupied by recovering vegetation. The objective of this study was to determine the effect of canopy gap size on mortality and growth of surrounding trees over a 16-year period in mature and old-growth Douglas-fir dominated forests in the coastal Pacific Northwest, USA. Replicates of four sizes of experimental gaps and controls were created in two mature stands (90 and 145-years old) and two old-growth stands (overstory trees 350–525-years old); mortality and diameter of surrounding trees were measured periodically over 16 years. A subset of trees was cored to compare growth increment before and after gap creation. There was no difference between mortality rates of trees within 8 m of gaps and trees in closed-canopy controls, although mortality causes did differ for understory trees. Mortality of understory trees was higher at gap edges than in controls, but lower several meters into the forest, suggesting a shift from negative to positive effects with the gradient in exposure. Diameter growth rates of trees were greater next to gaps than in controls, with the greatest difference ranging from 39% for overstory trees to 111% for understory trees in mature stands. Growth rates of trees in old-growth stands differed by crown class and position around gap, suggesting an effect of direct solar radiation. Growth rates of trees in mature stands were relatively insensitive to gap size and position, suggesting that increased soil moisture drove responses in these stands. Somewhat unexpectedly, there were rapid increases in growth in some old-growth trees, but not in the largest gap sizes. Results suggest canopy gaps can create heterogeneity of ecosystem function through spatial variation in effects on growth and mortality across mature and old-growth stands.
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  • Gray, A., Spies, T., & Pabst, R. (2012). Canopy gaps affect long-term patterns of tree growth and mortality in mature and old-growth forests in the pacific northwest. FOREST ECOLOGY AND MANAGEMENT, 281, 111-120. doi: 10.1016/j.foreco.2012.06.035
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