Canopy openness and topographic habitat drive tree seedling recruitment after snow damage in an old-growth subtropical forest
We investigated the relative and combined effect of topography and light environment on the recruitment of seedlings in a subtropical forest after snow damage to the canopy. The tree seedling community in an old-growth subtropical forest was monitored using 500 2 m × 2 m seedling plots at six-month intervals for 2 years. With a focus on recruitment following canopy damage, we related abiotic and biotic environmental variables to seedling dynamics, and we tested if significant topographic and light habitat associations were present for seedlings recruiting via a torus translation test. Then, we used variance partitioning to examine the relative effects of spatial, topographic and light variables on the temporal assemblages of seedlings. A total of 3047 seedlings from 58 species recruited in the first 2 years following snow damage. At the community level, increases in seedling abundance and richness were positively correlated with canopy openness and negatively correlated with elevation. At the species level, both pioneer and late-successional tree species had more recruits in high light environment than in low light environment. 84.3% of the recruiting seedlings were significantly associated to either light environment (35.7%), topography (26.5%) or both (22.1%). Despite this, at the plot level, spatial variables (PCNM) explained the majority of the variability in seedling composition over time. Our results suggest that snow damage to the canopy increases species richness and abundance via light-facilitated seedling recruitment, and that the composition of recruiting seedlings was largely spatially dependent. Topographic habitat filtering acts as a persistent force in determining the recruitment of seedlings and increases in strength with increased light-facilitated seedling recruitment. Our results highlight that, in this subtropical forest, both light requirement and topographic specialization interact over time to play a key role in promoting coexistence of tree species through selection of individuals at the seedling stage. We also suggest exploring the possibilities of management intervention to speed up the recovery of this forest.