Density dependence and habitat heterogeneity regulate seedling survival in a North American temperate forest
Survival and growth of forest tree seedlings are influenced by many abiotic and biotic forces that may vary across space and time. The simultaneous influences of habitat heterogeneity, temporal environmental variability (including disturbance regimes), and biotic interactions are difficult to disentangle, yet understanding the relative importance of these factors for tree seedling dynamics is critical for conservation of forest biodiversity. Most long term, spatially explicit studies of tree seedling ecology have been set in the tropics; much less attention has been given to tree seedlings in temperate forests. We monitored the survival of over 3000 individual seedlings over an eight-year period in a temperate forest in northeast Wisconsin, USA. Results from four seedling censuses demonstrated that both conspecific density and environmental variables significantly affected seedling survival. Higher densities of conspecific trees consistently reduced the probability of seedling survival over time. At the community level, relatively common species were negatively influenced by neighboring conspecific trees and exhibited higher per capita and per basal area mortality. The negative impacts of high conspecific tree density were most pronounced in areas of higher light and moisture, but these interactions varied over time, as did the importance of other abiotic variables. Patterns of less common species were more clearly explained by abiotic variables, with shifting relevance of specific variables according to species abundance. Conspecific negative density dependence, which interacts with resource gradients, and habitat conditions that shift over time are influencing community composition in this northern temperate forest.