A long-term study of tree seedling recruitment in Southern Appalachian forests: the effects of canopy gaps and shrub understories
We examined the importance of intermediate-sized gaps and a dense shrub layer on tree seedling recruitment in a Southern Appalachian deciduous forest. We created 12 canopy gaps under two contrasting understory conditions: 6 gaps were dominated by the dense, shade-producing shrub, Rhododendron maximum L., while the remaining gaps were relatively open. Density of first-year and >first-year seedlings was monitored for 5 years in transects extending from adjacent undisturbed forest through the experimental gaps. We concurrently measured the understory light environment, soil moisture, litter biomass, and seed rain. Neither species diversity nor richness consistently increased following gap formation. Acer rubrum L. responded consistently to canopy gaps with increased seedling densities while most other species, including both shade-tolerant and shade-intolerant species, did not. Seedling densities were especially low and unresponsive to gap formation in areas dominated by R. maximum. Understory light levels were consistently low beneath R. maximum and did not increase with canopy gap formation. Our results suggest that dense shrub cover can neutralize recruitment opportunities in canopy gaps, that seed rain often limits recruitment in gaps, and that canopy gaps that are larger or include understory disturbance are needed to maintain diversity in these forests.