Changes in stand structure, floristic composition and tree population dynamics during the last four centuries were described in southern temperate rain forests. The impacts of natural and anthropogenic disturbance since the late 1560s were examined for old-growth and logged forests.
The study was conducted in montane Nothofagus alpina forests in the Andean Range of south-central Chile. Study sites were located at a range of altitudes between 1000 and 1250 m a.s.l.
Temporal variation in species recruitment and annual dendroecological data were used to determine the historical development and disturbance history of three old-growth forests, and three stands after selective logging in the late 1880s to early 1900s. Considering the spatial structure of evergreen vs. deciduous elements, the forests are a mixture of deciduous and evergreen tree species.
Stem density, maximum stem diameter and basal area differed between the old-growth and logged stands, but species composition did not. At lower altitudes, N. alpina was the dominant canopy species in both old-growth and logged stands, but regeneration of N. alpina was significantly different in these stands. At higher altitudes, N. alpina and N. dombeyi were the dominant canopy species in both old-growth and logged stands, and here regeneration patterns of these Nothofagus species were similar. After selective logging, in mixed forests of shade-intolerant Nothofagus and more shade-tolerant trees (such as Laurelia philippiana) there has been a shift in regeneration from more shade-tolerant resprouting species towards Nothofagus. Major and moderate releases in radial growth, indicative of disturbance, occurred in most of the older trees during the last four centuries, and especially during the last 100 years. Growth rates of N. alpina are higher than those of associated shade-tolerant trees, and apparently increase after disturbances.
Results suggest that under disturbance regimes dominated by treefall gaps, and additionally canopy openings by selective logging, maintenance of Nothofagus species appears to be associated with complementary differences in growth rate, sprouting capacity, canopy residence time, and longevity. Such small-scale canopy openings may help explain the relative abundance of N. alpina in montane mixed rain forests in the Andean Range, where the maintenance of Nothofagus species in many stands has been attributed to a high frequency of coarse-scale disturbance. My results serve to emphasize that understanding the species coexistence and forest dynamics in Nothofagus forests may require attention to interspecific differences in life-history characteristics.