Patterns in understory vegetation communities across canopy gaps in young, Douglas-fir forests of western Oregon Public Deposited


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  • Canopy gap formation is a major factor contributing to maintenance of overstory species diversity and stand structure in forests and may be integral to development of understory shrub and herb layers as well. Acknowledgement of gap formation as a fundamental feature of natural forests has led to consideration of gaps as an option in forest management regimes. This study examined understory vegetation communities across canopy gaps created as a part of the Density Management Study (DMS), which investigates the effectiveness of a thinning regime in promoting late-successional habitat development in young Douglas-fir forests of western Oregon. Patterns in understory vegetation community composition in and around 0.1 and 0.4ha gaps created as a part of the DMS treatment were investigated. The primary goal of this research was to investigate the potential role of canopy gap creation in fostering heterogeneity in understory vegetation communities, and to examine the extent of gap influence on the surrounding thinned forest matrix. Tree species distributions have been shown to partition across gaps in tropical forest systems through differential responses of species to gradients in resource availability, a pattern known as gap partitioning. In temperate forests, understory vegetation communities are much more diverse than the overstories, and display a greater array of habitat requirements. Therefore, understory communities may be more likely than overstories to exhibit gap partitioning in these forests. Patterns in understory community composition across gaps suggest that gap partitioning has occurred. The strength of this partitioning effect appears to differ between gap sizes, as smaller gaps showed a less powerful effect. Abundance of ruderal species was strongly related to gap partitioning in larger gaps, while smaller gaps were dominated by competitor species. Partitioning may be related to an interactive relationship between harvest-related ground disturbance and resource gradients. Therefore, considerations of gap partitioning processes should take into account intensity and spatial distribution of ground disturbance in relation to resource gradients. In addition, conditions necessary for the expression of gap partitioning in understory vegetation communities may be rare in natural gaps in this region. The influence of gaps on understory vegetation communities in the surrounding forest appears to be relatively small. This small influence extent may help explain the lack of a stand level response to gap formation in these stands. Larger gaps exhibit a slight influence on the understory plant community in the surrounding forest to the north of the gap. In small gaps, there seemed to be an influence of the surrounding forest on gap interiors, resulting in an area of influence smaller than the physical gap area. This relationship may indicate that the area of gap influence on understory vegetation may not scale linearly with physical gap size. Species diversity was higher in gap interiors than in surrounding thinned forests. However this effect was partially due to the presence of exotic species, which showed an affinity for gap interiors. Late successional associated species were negatively related to gap interiors, but only in the larger gap size. Gap creation appears to be promoting small scale species diversity in these stands, but creation of large gaps may also promote the establishment of exotic species and may have a negative effect on late successional associated species. However, any and all of these effects may be transient, as understory communities will be strongly affected by overstory re-establishment, and related changes in resource availability. In general, gap formation may influence small-scale stand heterogeneity as evidenced by understory plant communities, but this effect may rely strongly on the nature of gap formation and intensity of disturbance related to this formation.
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