Land-use history impacts spatial patterns and composition of woody plant species across a 35-hectare temperate forest plot

Land-use history is the template upon which contemporary plant and tree populations establish and interact with one another and exerts a legacy on the structure and dynamics of species assemblages and ecosystems. We use the first census (2010–2014) of a 35-ha forest-dynamics plot at the Harvard Forest in central Massachusetts to describe the composition and structure of the woody plants in this plot, assess their spatial associations within and among the dominant species using univariate and bivariate spatial point-pattern analysis, and examine the interactions between land-use history and ecological processes. The plot includes 108,632 live stems ≥ 1 cm in diameter (2,215 individuals/ha) and 7,595 standing dead stems ≥ 5 cm in diameter. Live tree basal area averaged 42.25 m2/ha, of which 84% was represented by Tsuga canadensis (14.0 m2/ ha), Quercus rubra (northern red oak; 9.6 m2/ ha), Acer rubrum (7.2 m2/ ha) and Pinus strobus (eastern white pine; 4.4 m2/ ha). These same four species also comprised 78% of the live aboveground biomass, which averaged 245.2 Mg/ ha. Across all species and size classes, the forest contains a preponderance (> 80,000) of small stems (<10-cm diameter) that exhibit a reverse-J size distribution. Significant spatial clustering of abundant overstory species was observed at all spatial scales examined. Spatial distributions of A. rubrum and Q. rubra showed negative intraspecific correlations in diameters up to at least a 150-m spatial lag, likely indicative of crowding effects in dense forest patches following intensive past land use. Bivariate marked point-pattern analysis, showed that T. canadensis and Q. rubra diameters were negatively associated with one another, indicating resource competition for light. Distribution and abundance of the common overstory species are predicted best by soil type, tree neighborhood effects, and two aspects of land-use history: when fields were abandoned in the late 19th century and the succeeding forest types recorded in 1908. In contrast, a history of intensive logging prior to 1950 and a damaging hurricane in 1938 appear to have had little effect on the distribution and abundance of present-day tree species. Our findings suggest that current day composition and structure are still being influenced by anthropogenic disturbances that occurred over a century ago.

David Orwig, Jason A. Aylward, Hannah L. Buckley, Bradley S. Case, & Aaron M. Ellison
Harvard Forest