An experimental test of well-described vegetation patterns across slope aspects using woodland herb transplants and manipulated abiotic drivers


Author for correspondence:
Robert J. Warren II
Tel: +1 828 506 1253


  • The ubiquitous transition of plant communities across slope aspects is a well-described, but rarely tested, ecological dynamic. Aspect position is often used as a proxy for microclimate changes in moisture, light and temperature, but these abiotic drivers are seldom decoupled and very rarely manipulated across slope aspects.
  • To investigate the mechanisms and demographic stages driving the observed distribution patterns of two woodland herbs in the southeastern USA, seeds and adults were transplanted across north- and south-facing slopes, and moisture and light were experimentally manipulated.
  • Stage- and species-specific abiotic responses resulted in similar landscape-level patterning for Hexastylis arifolia and Hepatica nobilis, but the underlying abiotic drivers were unique. Adult rather than seed survival best explained the natural distributions across slope aspects, and Hexastylis arifolia was limited by higher temperature, whereas Hepatica nobilis was limited by lower soil moisture.
  • The stage- and species-specific responses indicated that the use of slope aspect to explain plant distributions not only obfuscates explanatory mechanisms, but probably undermines the portability of results. As abiotic drivers, not topographical proxies, are projected to shift with global climate change, distribution research requires direct abiotic data in association with key demographic stages rather than topographical proxies.