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Centuries-old logging legacy on spatial and temporal patterns in understory herb communities

Wyatt, Julie L., Silman, Miles R.
Forest ecology and management 2010 v.260 no.1 pp. 116-124
herbaceous plants, community ecology, plant communities, understory, species diversity, age, old-growth forests, secondary forests, temperate forests, logging, anthropogenic activities, phenology, spatial variation, Appalachian region
Understory herb communities in the Southern Appalachians are among the highest biodiversity plant communities in North America. In the mid-1990s, a debate began over whether understory herb communities recover to their pre-disturbance states following logging. Studies showing reduced herb-layer diversity in previously logged forests were criticized for not accounting for intersite environmental heterogeneity. More recent studies have addressed environmental heterogeneity, but have neglected long-term recovery by using “mature forests” as young as 80 years old as the benchmark for diversity comparison, even though old growth stands have disturbance return intervals exceeding 500 years. Here we address concerns clouding previous studies of high-diversity Appalachian herb communities and investigate their long-term recovery by comparing paired sites of old growth forest and forest logged 100-150 years ago. We found that species richness and individual abundance is greater in old growth forests than mature forests and that species composition differed significantly between the two. Turnover in species among old growth and mature forests accounted for 11% of the total species richness and was significantly greater than expected. Species turnover at intermediate (5-50m) and landscape-scales (>10km) contributed the most towards total species richness. Herb communities in rich cove forests have successional trajectories that exceed 150 years, with important community changes still occurring long after the forest returns to what has been previously termed a “mature” state. To conserve the diverse herb layer, we conclude that mature forest stands are too young to serve as baselines for recovery, landscape-scale preservation of multiple forest stands is needed to maximize species richness, and maintaining 100-150-year logging rotations will likely lead to loss of biodiversity.