Beneath the veil: plant growth form influences the strength of species richness–productivity relationships in forests


*Correspondence: Brad Oberle, Department of Biology, Washington University, St Louis, MO 63130, USA.


Aim  Species richness has been observed to increase with productivity at large spatial scales, though the strength of this relationship varies among functional groups. In forests, canopy trees shade understorey plants, and for this reason we hypothesize that species richness of canopy trees will depend on macroclimate, while species richness of shorter growth forms will additionally be affected by shading from the canopy. In this study we test for differences in species richness–productivity relationships (SRPRs) among growth forms (canopy trees, shrubs, herbaceous species) in small forest plots.

Location  We analysed 231 plots ranging from 34.0° to 48.3° N latitude and from 75.0° to 124.2° W longitude in the United States.

Methods  We analysed data collected by the USDA Forest Inventory and Analysis program for plant species richness partitioned into different growth forms, in small plots. We used actual evapotranspiration as a macroclimatic estimate of regional productivity and calculated the area of light-blocking tissue in the immediate area surrounding plots for an estimate of the intensity of local shading. We estimated and compared SRPRs for different partitions of the species richness dataset using generalized linear models and we incorporated the possible indirect effects of shading using a structural equation model.

Results  Canopy tree species richness increased strongly with regional productivity, while local shading primarily explained the variation in herbaceous plant richness. Shrub species richness was related to both regional productivity and local shading.

Main conclusions  The relationship between total forest plant species richness and productivity at large scales belies strong effects of local interactions. Counter to the pattern for overall richness, we found that understorey herbaceous plant species richness does not respond to regional productivity gradients, and instead is strongly influenced by canopy density, while shrub species richness is under multivariate control.