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Interactions between overstorey and understorey vegetation along an overstorey compositional gradient




What is the nature of the interactions between higher vegetation strata (overstorey) and lower strata (understorey vegetation) and among understorey vegetation layers in closed canopy forests? How does the abundance or richness of one vegetation layer affect the abundance or richness of the other?


Boreal mixed-wood forests of Ontario and Quebec, Canada.


We sampled fire-origin stands of varying overstorey composition from broad-leaf-dominated to mixed to conifer-dominated stands on mesic sites in Ontario and subhydric sites in Quebec. Overstorey tree species composition and understorey shrub, herb, bryophyte and lichen species cover and richness were estimated within 400-m2 circular plots. In addition, soil nutrients, coarse woody debris and light conditions were measured. Overstorey composition was expressed as the percentage basal area of broad-leaf tree species. Path analysis was used to examine interactions among the forest layers.


Overstorey broad-leaf composition had positive effects on shrub and herb layer cover and herb layer richness, and negative effects on bryophyte and lichen species cover and richness. Shrub layer cover had no effect on herb layer cover, but shrub layer richness had a positive effect on herb layer richness. Herb layer cover and richness had negative effects on bryophyte species cover and richness. Bryophyte cover had no effect on lichen cover, but its richness was positively related to lichen richness. In both regions, soil pH, total nitrogen, total phosphorus and cation exchange capacity of the forest floor were positively correlated with overstorey broad-leaf composition and with shrub layer cover and herb layer cover.


Increasing overstorey broad-leaf composition, through its influence on soil nutrients, promotes shrub and herb layer species, but limits bryophyte and lichen species. In the overstorey-controlled understorey resource environment, cover and richness of shrub and herb layers increase with resource availability, whereas bryophytes and lichens show positive associations with abundance of coarse woody debris.