skip to main content

Title: Disturbance structures canopy and understory productivity along an environmental gradient
Disturbances often disproportionately impact different vegetation layers in forests and other vertically stratified ecosystems, shaping community structure and ecosystem function. However, disturbance-driven changes may be mediated by environmental conditions that affect habitat quality and species interactions. In a decade-long field experiment, we tested how kelp forest net primary productivity (NPP) responds to repeated canopy loss along a gradient in grazing and substrate suitability. We discovered that habitat quality can mediate the effects of intensified disturbance on canopy and understory NPP. Experimental annual and quarterly disturbances suppressed total macroalgal NPP, but effects were strongest in high- quality habitats that supported dense kelp canopies that were removed by disturbance. Understory macroalgae partly compensated for canopy NPP losses and this effect magnified with increasing habitat quality. Disturbance-driven increases in understory NPP were still rising after 5-10 years of disturbance, demonstrating the value of long-term experimentation for understanding ecosystem responses to changing disturbance regimes.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
2023555 1831937
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ;
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Ecology letters
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Across the globe, the forest carbon sink is increasingly vulnerable to an expanding array of low- to moderate-severity disturbances. However, some forest ecosystems exhibit functional resistance (i.e., the capacity of ecosystems to continue functioning as usual) following disturbances such as extreme weather events and insect or fungal pathogen outbreaks. Unlike severe disturbances (e.g., stand-replacing wildfires), moderate severity disturbances do not always result in near-term declines in forest production because of the potential for compensatory growth, including enhanced subcanopy production. Community-wide shifts in subcanopy plant functional traits, prompted by disturbance-driven environmental change, may play a key mechanistic role in resisting declines in net primary production (NPP) up to thresholds of canopy loss. However, the temporal dynamics of these shifts, as well as the upper limits of disturbance for which subcanopy production can compensate, remain poorly characterized. In this study, we leverage a 4-year dataset from an experimental forest disturbance in northern Michigan to assess subcanopy community trait shifts as well as their utility in predicting ecosystem NPP resistance across a wide range of implemented disturbance severities. Through mechanical girdling of stems, we achieved a gradient of severity from 0% (i.e., control) to 45, 65, and 85% targeted gross canopy defoliation, replicated across four landscape ecosystems broadly representative of the Upper Great Lakes ecoregion. We found that three of four examined subcanopy community weighted mean (CWM) traits including leaf photosynthetic rate ( p = 0.04), stomatal conductance ( p = 0.07), and the red edge normalized difference vegetation index ( p < 0.0001) shifted rapidly following disturbance but before widespread changes in subcanopy light environment triggered by canopy tree mortality. Surprisingly, stimulated subcanopy production fully compensated for upper canopy losses across our gradient of experimental severities, achieving complete resistance (i.e., no significant interannual differences from control) of whole ecosystem NPP even in the 85% disturbance treatment. Additionally, we identified a probable mechanistic switch from nutrient-driven to light-driven trait shifts as disturbance progressed. Our findings suggest that remotely sensed traits such as the red edge normalized difference vegetation index (reNDVI) could be particularly sensitive and robust predictors of production response to disturbance, even across compositionally diverse forests. The potential of leaf spectral indices to predict post-disturbance functional resistance is promising given the capabilities of airborne to satellite remote sensing. We conclude that dynamic functional trait shifts following disturbance can be used to predict production response across a wide range of disturbance severities. 
    more » « less
  2. A number of recent studies have documented long-term declines in abundances of important arthropod groups, primarily in Europe and North America. These declines are generally attributed to habitat loss, but a recent study [B.C. Lister, A. Garcia,Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA115, E10397–E10406 (2018)] from the Luquillo Experimental Forest (LEF) in Puerto Rico attributed declines to global warming. We analyze arthropod data from the LEF to evaluate long-term trends within the context of hurricane-induced disturbance, secondary succession, and temporal variation in temperature. Our analyses demonstrate that responses to hurricane-induced disturbance and ensuing succession were the primary factors that affected total canopy arthropod abundances on host trees, as well as walkingstick abundance on understory shrubs. Ambient and understory temperatures played secondary roles for particular arthropod species, but populations were just as likely to increase as they were to decrease in abundance with increasing temperature. The LEF is a hurricane-mediated system, with major hurricanes effecting changes in temperature that are larger than those induced thus far by global climate change. To persist, arthropods in the LEF must contend with the considerable variation in abiotic conditions associated with repeated, large-scale, and increasingly frequent pulse disturbances. Consequently, they are likely to be well-adapted to the effects of climate change, at least over the short term. Total abundance of canopy arthropods after Hurricane Maria has risen to levels comparable to the peak after Hurricane Hugo. Although the abundances of some taxa have declined over the 29-y period, others have increased, reflecting species turnover in response to disturbance and secondary succession.

    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    Savanna ecosystems contribute ~30% of global net primary production (NPP), but they vary substantially in composition and function, specifically in the understory, which can result in complex responses to environmental fluctuations. We tested how understory phenology and its contribution to ecosystem productivity within a longleaf pine ecosystem varied at two ends of a soil moisture gradient (mesic and xeric). We used the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) of the understory and ecosystem productivity estimates from eddy covariance systems to understand how variation in the understory affected overall ecosystem recovery from disturbances (drought and fire). We found that the mesic site recovered more rapidly from the disturbance of fire, compared to the xeric site, indicated by a faster increase inNDVI. During drought, understoryNDVIat the xeric site decreased less compared to the mesic site, suggesting adaptation to lower soil moisture conditions. Our results also show large variation within savanna ecosystems in the contribution of the understory to ecosystem productivity and recovery, highlighting the critical need to further subcategorize global savanna ecosystems by their structural features, to accurately predict their contribution to global estimates ofNPP.

    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Moderate severity disturbances, those that do not result in stand replacement, play an essential role in ecosystem dynamics. Despite the prevalence of moderate severity disturbances and the significant impacts they impose on forest functioning, little is known about their effects on forest canopy structure and how these effects differ over time across a range of disturbance severities and disturbance types.

    Using longitudinal data from the National Ecological Observatory Network project, we assessed the effects of three moderate severity press disturbances (beech bark disease, hemlock woolly adelgid and emerald ash borer, which are characterized by continuous disturbance and sustained mortality) and three moderate severity pulse disturbances (spring cankerworm moth, spongy moth and ground fire, which are associated with discrete and relatively short mortalities) on temperate forest canopy structure in eastern US. We studied (1) how light detection and ranging (LiDAR)‐derived metrics of canopy structure change in response to disturbance and (2) whether initial canopy complexity offsets impact of disturbances on canopy structure over time. We used a mixed‐effects modelling framework which included a non‐linear term for time to represent changes in canopy structure caused by disturbance, and interactions between time and both disturbance intensity and initial canopy complexity.

    We discovered that high intensity of both press and pulse disturbances inhibited canopy height growth while low intensity pulse disturbances facilitated it. In addition, high intensity pulse disturbances facilitated increases in the complexity of the canopy over time. Concerning the impact of initial canopy complexity, we found that the initial canopy complexity of disturbed plots altered the effects of moderate disturbances, indicating potential resilience effects.

    Synthesis. This study used repeated measurements of LiDAR data to examine the effects of moderate disturbances on various dimensions of forest canopy structure, including height, openness, density and complexity. Our study indicates that both press and pulse disturbances can inhibit canopy height growth over time. However, while the impact of press disturbances on other dimensions of canopy structure could not be clearly detected, likely because of compensatory growth, the impact of pulse disturbances over time was more readily apparent using multi‐temporal LiDAR data. Furthermore, our findings suggest that canopy complexity might help to mitigate the impact of moderate disturbances on canopy structures over time. Overall, our research highlights the usefulness of multi‐temporal LiDAR data for assessing the structural changes in forest canopies caused by moderate severity disturbances.

    more » « less
  5. null (Ed.)
    Intermediate disturbances are an important component of many forest disturbance regimes, with effects on canopy structure and related functions that are highly dependent on the nature and intensity of the perturbation. Ice storms are an important disturbance mechanism in temperate forests that often result in moderate-severity, diffuse canopy damage. However, it has not previously been possible to distinguish the specific effect of ice storm intensity (as ice accretion) from predisturbance stand characteristics and physiographic factors. In this study, we utilized a novel experimental ice storm treatment to evaluate the effects of variable ice accretion levels on forest canopy structure. Our results verified significant impacts of ice storm disturbance on near-term canopy structural reorganization. Canopy openness, light transmission, and complexity increased significantly relative to predisturbance baselines and undisturbed controls. We documented variable impacts with disturbance intensity, as significant canopy changes largely occurred with ice accretion levels of ≥12.7 mm. Repeated ice storm disturbance (two consecutive years) had marginal, rather than compounding, effects on forest canopy structure. Our findings are relevant to understanding how ice storms can affect near-term forest canopy structural reorganization and ecosystem processes and add to a growing base of knowledge on the effects of intermediate disturbances on canopy structure. 
    more » « less