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Plant richness and composition in hardwood forest understories vary along an acidic deposition and soil-chemical gradient in the northeastern United States

Zarfos, Michael R., Dovciak, Martin, Lawrence, Gregory B., McDonnell, Todd C., Sullivan, Timothy J.
Plant and soil 2019 v.438 no.1-2 pp. 461-477
acid deposition, carbon nitrogen ratio, cations, chemical bases, community structure, environmental factors, hardwood forests, models, nitrogen, plant communities, regression analysis, soil acidification, soil pH, species diversity, sulfur, trees, understory, variance, watersheds, Adirondacks, New York
AIMS: A century of atmospheric deposition of sulfur and nitrogen has acidified soils and undermined the health and recruitment of foundational tree species in the northeastern US. However, effects of acidic deposition on the forest understory plant communities of this region are poorly documented. We investigated how forest understory plant species composition and richness varied across gradients of acidic deposition and soil acidity in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. METHODS: We surveyed understory vegetation and soils in hardwood forests on 20 small watersheds and built models of community composition and richness as functions of soil chemistry, nitrogen and sulfur deposition, and other environmental variables. RESULTS: Community composition varied significantly with gradients of acidic deposition, soil acidity, and base cation availability (63% variance explained). Several species increased with soil acidity while others decreased. Understory plant richness decreased significantly with increasing soil acidity (r = 0.60). The best multivariate regression model to predict richness (p < 0.001, adjusted-R² = 0.60) reflected positive effects of pH and carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N). CONCLUSIONS: The relationship we found between understory plant communities and a soil-chemical gradient, suggests that soil acidification can reduce diversity and alter the composition of these communities in northern hardwood forests exposed to acidic deposition.