Foundation species loss affects vegetation structure more than ecosystem function in a northeastern USA forest.
Loss of foundation tree species rapidly alters ecological processes in forested ecosystems. Tsuga canadensis, an hypothesized foundation species of eastern North American forests, is declining throughout much of its range due to infestation by the nonnative insect Adelges tsugae and by removal through pre-emptive salvage logging. In replicate 0.81-ha plots, T. canadensis was cut and removed, or killed in place by girdling to simulate adelgid damage. Control plots included undisturbed hemlock and mid-successional hardwood stands that represent expected forest composition in 50-100 years. Vegetation richness, understory vegetation cover, soil carbon flux, and nitrogen cycling were measured for two years prior to, and five years following, application of experimental treatments. Litterfall and coarse woody debris (CWD), including snags, stumps, and fallen logs and branches, have been measured since treatments were applied. Overstory basal area was reduced 60%-70% in girdled and logged plots. Mean cover and richness did not change in hardwood or hemlock control plots but increased rapidly in girdled and logged plots. Following logging, litterfall immediately decreased then slowly increased, whereas in girdled plots, there was a short pulse of hemlock litterfall as trees died. CWD volume remained relatively constant throughout but was 3-4 × higher in logged plots. Logging and girdling resulted in small, short-term changes in ecosystem dynamics due to rapid regrowth of vegetation but in general, interannual variability exceeded differences among treatments. Soil carbon flux in girdled plots showed the strongest response: 35% lower than controls after three years and slowly increasing thereafter. Ammonium availability increased immediately after logging and two years after girdling, due to increased light and soil temperatures and nutrient pulses from leaf-fall and reduced uptake following tree death. The results from this study illuminate ecological processes underlying patterns observed consistently in region-wide studies of adelgid-infested hemlock stands. Mechanisms of T. canadensis loss determine rates, magnitudes, and trajectories of ecological changes in hemlock forests. Logging causes abrupt, large changes in vegetation structure whereas girdling (and by inference, A. tsugae) causes sustained, smaller changes. Ecosystem processes depend more on vegetation cover per se than on species composition. We conclude that the loss of this late-successional foundation species will have long-lasting impacts on forest structure but subtle impacts on ecosystem function.