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  1. Abstract

    The persistence of future forests depends on the success of tree seedlings which are experiencing increasing physiological stress from changing climate and air pollution. Although the moss layer can serve as an important substrate for tree seedlings, its potential for reducing environmental stress and enhancing the establishment of seedlings remains poorly understood. We tested if the moss layer decreased environmental stress and increased the abundance of balsam fir seedlings dominant in high-elevation forests of northeastern United States that are sensitive to changing climate and mercury deposition. We surveyed balsam fir seedling density by substrate (moss, litter, other) on 120 quadrats (1 × 1 m) in two contrasting canopy environments (in gaps and under canopies), measured seedling stress, and quantified mercury content in seedlings and substrates. We observed that, in both canopy environments, tree seedlings established on moss exhibited (i) increased density, (ii) decreased physiological stress, and (iii) higher potential to recruit into larger size classes, compared to seedlings established in litter. Regardless of canopy environment, seedling foliar mercury levels did not correspond to substrate mercury despite large differences in substrate mercury concentrations (relative to moss, litter concentrations were ~ 4-times greater and soil concentrations were ~ 6-times greater), likely reflecting the dominance of foliar over root uptake of mercury. Because the moss layer appeared to mitigate seedling drought stress, and to increase seedling establishment and recruitment compared to other substrates, these microsite effects should be considered in models predicting forest regeneration and dynamics under increased drought stress associated with the ongoing climate warming.

     
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  2. Abstract Aims

    Bryophytes can cover three quarters of the ground surface, play key ecological functions, and increase biodiversity in mesic high‐elevation conifer forests of the temperate zone. Forest gaps affect species coexistence (and ecosystem functions) as suggested by the gap and gap‐size partitioning hypotheses (GPH,GSPH). Here we test these hypotheses in the context of high‐elevation forest bryophyte communities and their functional attributes.

    Study Site

    Spruce–fir forests on Whiteface Mountain, NY,USA.

    Methods

    We characterized canopy openness, microclimate, forest floor substrates, vascular vegetation cover, and moss layer (cover, common species, and functional attributes) in three canopy openness environments (gap, gap edge, forest canopy) across 20 gaps (fir waves) (n = 60); the functional attributes were based on 16 morphologic, reproductive, and ecological bryophyte plant functional traits (PFTs). We testedGPHandGSPHrelative to bryophyte community metrics (cover, composition), traits, and trait functional sensitivity (functional dispersion;FDis) using indicator species analysis, ordination, and regression.

    Results

    Canopy openness drove gradients in ground‐level temperature, substrate abundance and heterogeneity (beta diversity), and understory vascular vegetation cover. TheGPHwas consistent with (a) the abundance patterns of forest canopy indicator species (Dicranum fuscescens,Hypnum imponens, andTetraphis pellucida), and (b)FDisbased on threePFTs (growth form, fertility, and acidity), both increasing with canopy cover. We did not find support forGPHin the remaining species or traits, or forGSPHin general; gap width (12–44 m) was not related to environmental or bryophyte community gradients.

    Conclusions

    The observed lack of variation in most bryophyte metrics across canopy environments suggests high resistance of the bryophyte layer to natural canopy gaps in high‐elevation forests. However, responses of forest canopy indicator species suggest that canopy mortality, potentially increased by changing climate or insect pests, may cause declines in some forest canopy species and consequently in the functional diversity of bryophyte communities.

     
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