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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

    Canopy openness is an important forest characteristic related to understory light environment and productivity. Although many methods exist to estimate canopy openness, comparisons of their performance tend to focus on relatively narrow ranges of canopy conditions and forest types. To address this gap, we compared two popular approaches for estimating canopy openness, traditional spherical densiometer and modern smartphone hemispherical photography, across a large range of canopy conditions (from closed canopy to large gaps) and forest types (from low-elevation broadleaf to high-elevation conifer forests) across four states in the northeastern United States. We took 988 field canopy openness measurements (494 per instrument) and compared them across canopy conditions using linear regression and t-tests. The extensive replication allowed us to quantify differences between the methods that may otherwise go unnoticed. Relative to the densiometer, smartphone photography overestimated low canopy openness (<10%) but it underestimated higher canopy openness (>10%), regardless of forest type.

     
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  3. 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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  4. Trait-based analyses provide powerful tools for developing a generalizable, physiologically grounded understanding of how forest communities are responding to ongoing environmental changes. Key challenges lie in (1) selecting traits that best characterize the ecological performance of species in the community and (2) determining the degree and importance of intraspecific variability in those traits. Recent studies suggest that globally evident trait correlations (trait dimensions), such as the leaf economic spectrum, may be weak or absent at local scales. Moreover, trait-based analyses that utilize a mean value to represent a species may be misleading. Mean trait values are particularly problematic if species trait value rankings change along environmental gradients, resulting in species trait crossover. To assess how plant traits (1) covary at local spatial scales, (2) vary across the dominant environmental gradients, and (3) can be partitioned within and across taxa, we collected data on 9 traits for 13 tree species spanning the montane temperate—boreal forest ecotones of New York and northern New England. The primary dimension of the trait ordination was the leaf economic spectrum, with trait variability among species largely driven by differences between deciduous angiosperms and evergreen gymnosperms. A second dimension was related to variability in nitrogen to phosphorous levels and stem specific density. Levels of intraspecific trait variability differed considerably among traits, and was related to variation in light, climate, and tree developmental stage. However, trait rankings across species were generally conserved across these gradients and there was little evidence of species crossover. The persistence of the leaf economics spectrum in both temperate and high-elevation conifer forests suggests that ecological strategies of tree species are associated with trade-offs between resource acquisition and tolerance, and may be quantified with relatively few traits. Furthermore, the assumption that species may be represented with a single trait value may be warranted for some trait-based analyses provided traits were measured under similar light levels and climate conditions. 
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