The assembly of forest communities according to maximum species height along resource and disturbance gradients


  • Brandon S. Schamp,

  • Lonnie W. Aarssen

B. S. Schamp ( and L. W. Aarssen, Dept of Biology, Queen's Univ., Kingston, Ontario, K7L 3N6, Canada. Present address for BSS: Dept of Biology, Algoma Univ., Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, P6A 2G4, Canada


An ongoing debate in ecology concerns the relative importance of competition in driving community patterns, especially along gradients of disturbance and productivity. We used a null model to address this question by testing for non-random organization of forest species according to maximum height, a trait associated with competitive ability for light. Specifically, we compared the species present in 409 different temperate forest plots with the pool of potentially present species (n=639 species), spanning a 50 000 km2 area of southern Ontario, Canada. In contrast to current theory, coexisting forest species were neither more similar (i.e. convergent), nor more different (i.e. limiting similarity) in maximum height than expected by chance. However, coexisting forest species had larger maximum heights on average, and their maximum heights were more symmetrically distributed than expected by chance, suggesting that competition has reduced the representation of smaller plant species within plots (i.e. higher turn-over of species with smaller maximum heights among forest plots). We explored the possibility that our findings resulted from smaller species having relatively narrower niches; however, a conclusive test of this explanation will require knowledge of fundamental, rather than realized niche breadth. We also tested the prediction that the influence of competition changes along gradients of productivity and disturbance by examining how the effect size of our null model tests changed along these gradients. We observed that species with smaller maximum heights were increasingly under-represented in more productive forest communities, suggesting an increased role for competition in determining species membership in more productive communities. In contrast to theory, however, the effect size of our tests did not significantly change along a gradient of forest disturbance. In summary, we found evidence that maximum species height plays a significant role in driving the non-random organization of plant species among hundreds of mature forest plots, and that this role is more pronounced in more productive forest plots.1