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Understory Plant Community Composition Is Associated with Fine-Scale Above- and Below-Ground Resource Heterogeneity in Mature Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta) Forests

McIntosh A. C. S., S.E. Macdonald and S. A. Quideau . 2016. Public Library of Science


Understory plant communities play critical ecological roles in forest ecosystems. Both above- and below-ground ecosystem properties and processes influence these communities but relatively little is known about such effects at fine (i.e., one to several meters within-stand) scales, particularly for forests in which the canopy is dominated by a single species. An improved understanding of these effects is critical for understanding how understory biodiversity is regulated in such forests and for anticipating impacts of changing disturbance regimes. Our primary objective was to examine the patterns of fine-scale variation in understory plant communities and their relationships to above- and below-ground resource and environmental heterogeneity within mature lodgepole pine forests. We assessed composition and diversity of understory vegetation in relation to heterogeneity of both the above-ground (canopy tree density, canopy and tall shrub basal area and cover, downed wood biomass, litter cover) and below-ground (soil nutrient availability, decomposition, forest floor thickness, pH, and phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs) and multiple carbon-source substrate-induced respiration (MSIR) of the forest floor microbial community) environment. There was notable variation in fine-scale plant community composition; cluster and indicator species analyses of the 24 most commonly occurring understory species distinguished four assemblages, one for which a pioneer forb species had the highest cover levels, and three others that were characterized by different bryophyte species having the highest cover. Constrained ordination (distance-based redundancy analysis) showed that two above-ground (mean tree diameter, litter cover) and eight below-ground (forest floor pH, plant available boron, microbial community composition and function as indicated by MSIR and PLFAs) properties were associated with variation in understory plant community composition. These results provide novel insights into the important ecological associations between understory plant community composition and heterogeneity in ecosystem properties and processes within forests dominated by a single canopy species.