Natural disturbance in an old-growth landscape of northern Maine, USA


*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1Disturbance histories derived from old-growth forest remnants in Europe and eastern North America have shaped many of our current theories of forest dynamics and succession. Yet the small size typical of these remnants suggests they might not capture the full range of variability that may emerge at larger scales.
  • 2We investigated the frequency and severity of natural disturbance in a 2000-ha old-growth landscape (Big Reed Forest Reserve) in northern Maine, USA. Given its size, the Reserve provides an ideal opportunity to study, at multiple scales, natural forest processes in a region that has otherwise been dramatically altered by human activities. Using dendrochronological methods, we reconstructed disturbance histories for 37 randomly located plots stratified by five forest types (hardwood forests, mixed woods forests, red spruce forests, northern white-cedar seepage forests and northern white-cedar swamps).
  • 3We found no evidence of stand replacing disturbance on any plot during the last 120–280 years (depending on plot). The overall mean disturbance rate was 9.6% canopy loss per decade (median 6.5%, maximum 55%, plots pooled), yet the distribution was strongly skewed toward the lower rates.
  • 4We found little differences in disturbance rates between forest types, save a slightly lower rate in the northern white-cedar swamps. However, if we ignore forest-type classifications, we see that disturbance rates are clearly influenced by gradients in the relative abundance of component tree species, owing to species’ relative susceptibilities to particular disturbance agents.
  • 5Synthesis. Relatively low rates of canopy disturbance allow the accrual of shade-tolerant saplings. The abundance of this advance regeneration, coupled with the absence of stand-replacing disturbance, has maintained canopy dominance by shade-tolerant species in all plots, all forest types and throughout the entire landscape. Disturbance histories from individual plots coalesce to form a picture of a landscape in which pulses of moderate-severity disturbance are interposed upon a background of scattered small-scale canopy gaps. The landscape-level mosaic resulting from this disturbance regime consists of patches in various stages of structural development, not various stages of compositional succession.