Compositional stability and diversity of vascular plant communities following logging disturbance in Appalachian forests


  • Corresponding Editor: J. Belnap.


Human-caused changes in disturbance regimes and introductions of nonnative species have the potential to result in widespread, directional changes in forest community structure. The degree that plant community composition persists or changes following disturbances depends on the balance between local extirpation and colonization by new species, including nonnatives. In this study, we examined species losses and gains, and entry of native vs. exotic species to determine how oak forests in the Appalachian Mountains might shift in species composition following a gradient of pulse disturbances (timber harvesting). We asked (1) how compositional stability of the plant community (resistance and resilience) was influenced by disturbance intensity, (2) whether community responses were driven by extirpation or colonization of species, and (3) how disturbance intensity influenced total and functional group diversity, including the nonnative proportion of the flora through time. We collected data at three spatial scales and three times, including just before, one year post-disturbance, and 10 years post-disturbance. Resistance was estimated using community distance measures between pre- and one year post-disturbance, and resilience using community distance between pre- and 10-year post-disturbance conditions. The number of colonizing and extirpated species between sampling times was analyzed for all species combined and for six functional groups. Resistance and resilience decreased with increasing timber-harvesting disturbance; compositional stability was lower in the most disturbed plots, which was driven by colonization, but not extirpation, of species. Colonization of species also led to increases in diversity after disturbance that was typically maintained after 10 years following disturbance. Most of the community-level responses were driven by post-disturbance colonization of native forbs and graminoids. The nonnative proportion of plant species tended to increase following disturbance, especially at large spatial scales in the most disturbed treatments, but tended to decrease through time following disturbance due to canopy development. The results of this study are consistent with the theory that resources released by disturbance have strong influences on species colonization and community composition. The effects of management activities tested in this study, which span a gradient of timber-harvesting disturbance, shift species composition largely via an increase in species colonization and diversity.