Canopy structural complexity, which describes the degree of heterogeneity in vegetation density, is strongly tied to a number of ecosystem functions, but the community and structural characteristics that give rise to variation in complexity at site to subcontinental scales are poorly defined. We investigated how woody plant taxonomic and phylogenetic diversity, maximum canopy height, and leaf area index (LAI) relate to canopy rugosity, a measure of canopy structural complexity that is correlated with primary production, light capture, and resource‐use efficiency.
Our analysis used 122 plots distributed across 10 ecologically and climatically variable forests spanning a > 1,500 km latitudinal gradient within the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) of the USA.
We used univariate and multivariate modelling to examine relationships between canopy rugosity, and community and structural characteristics hypothesized to drive site and subcontinental variation in complexity.
Spatial variation in canopy rugosity within sites and across the subcontinent was strongly and positively related to maximum canopy height (
We conclude that maximum canopy height is a substantially stronger predictor of complexity than diversity or LAI within and across forests of eastern North America, suggesting that canopy volume places a primary constraint on the development of structural complexity. Management and land‐use practices that encourage and sustain tall temperate forest canopies may support greater complexity and associated increases in ecosystem functioning.