Differences in regeneration niche mediate how disturbance severity and microclimate affect forest species composition
Climate change is altering forest composition through species-specific responses to fire and drought. Future forest composition will depend on how the different regeneration niches of co-occurring species align with current environmental conditions, especially after fire, which can promote germination by exposing mineral soil. Few studies, however, have examined the effects of disturbance severity and microclimate on post-fire regeneration to define and compare the regeneration niches of co-occurring tree species. We used seven years of annual demography and microenvironment data from a 25.6-ha fully censused, stem-mapped forest dynamics plot in California, USA, to examine how disturbance severity, snow duration, and temperature extremes affect the survival of Abies concolor and Pinus lambertiana seedlings that germinated naturally after a low- to moderate-severity fire. We defined disturbance severity at the microsite level, based on characteristics of the substrate, and at the neighborhood level, based on tree mortality. Both disturbance severity and snow duration had species-specific effects on seedling survival, but these differed by life stage. During the germination year, later snow disappearance was associated with a 0.5 increase in survival probability for A. concolor but hardly affected P. lambertiana; in contrast, higher neighborhood disturbance severity increased survival of both species. After the germination year, higher substrate burn severity was associated with a 0.8 increase in survival probability for A. concolor but hardly affected P. lambertiana; higher neighborhood disturbance severity and later snow disappearance increased annual survival of both species, but maximum summer temperature had minimal effect. Overall, available seed, higher substrate burn severity, higher neighborhood disturbance severity, and later snow disappearance promoted natural regeneration. However, lower substrate burn severity and earlier snow disappearance in the germination year disadvantaged A. concolor seedlings, increasing the relative abundance of P. lambertiana seedlings compared to the local tree population. Our results indicate that natural post-fire compositional shifts toward drought-tolerant Pinus species–and away from less drought-tolerant Abies species–are possible in the Sierra Nevada, with potential benefits for forest persistence under climate change. Broadly, we show that species differences in regeneration niches shape how disturbance severity and microclimate affect forest species composition.