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Keywords:

  • forest dynamics;
  • growth;
  • Nothofagus ;
  • relative growth rate;
  • shade tolerance;
  • succession;
  • survival;
  • temperate rain forest

Summary

  1. Although ‘shade tolerance’ has featured prominently in the vocabulary of foresters and ecologists for a century, we have yet to agree on a standardized method for quantifying this elusive property. The ‘whole-plant compensation point’, interpolated from stem growth measurements across a wide range of light environments, has been proposed as a simple, robust measure of species shade tolerance. Others have argued that shade tolerance is primarily a function of differential ability to survive periods of slow growth (‘suppression’), implying that measurements of survival are vital.
  2. We measured growth of juveniles (500–1000 mm tall) of five evergreen trees over 12 months in a cool-temperate rain forest in New Zealand, to determine whether whole-plant compensation points predicted species differences in occupancy of understorey light environments, which were quantified using hemispherical photography.
  3. The five species encompassed 3·5-fold variation in whole-plant compensation points. Compensation points of most species fell within the first quartile of the distribution of light environments occupied by juveniles; they were also correlated with low-light mortality rates of juveniles, estimated from permanent plot data archived in the National Vegetation Survey Databank. Compensation points were also significantly positively correlated with height growth rates in high light, confirming the presence of the growth vs. shade tolerance trade-off detected in many other forest tree assemblages.
  4. Results show that, in temperate evergreen forests, the whole-plant compensation point distinguishes reliably between species of differing shade tolerance. Excepting situations involving parameterization of demographic models, shade tolerance can therefore be assessed without survival measurements. However, estimating whole-plant compensation points may prove more difficult in deciduous forests, where seasonal variation in understorey light transmission poses additional challenges.