Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide

Abstract

Gap dynamics and disease-causing invasive species drive the development of an old-growth forest over 250 years.

Abstract

Investigating the disturbance regimes of unharvested forests helps us understand their past, present, and future trajectory and gives us a model for forest management. It can also clarify the relative importance of small-scale gap dynamics versus more severe disturbances. Here we used tree rings to examine the recruitment patterns, growth dynamics, and disturbance chronologies of American beech (Fagus grandifolia), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) in A.B. Williams Woods, an old-growth forest in Ohio, USA, over the past 250 years. We found that beech and sugar maple recruitment peaked around 1900 and continued through the 1900s, while hemlock recruitment peaked during 1825-1875, then declined and effectively ended in the early 1900s. Hemlock grew fastest during the 1800s according to ring width and basal area increment, while sugar maple ring width surpassed beech and hemlock in the 1900s. All three species showed a dramatic increase in growth from 1980 to 2010. Beech and sugar maple established regardless of canopy gaps, but 73% of hemlocks originated in gaps. In most decades, <10% of trees experienced gap recruitment or growth release, suggesting that ongoing, endogenous canopy mortality was the primary disturbance shaping this forest. However, a more severe forest-wide disturbance occurred during the 1980s-1990s when the scale insect causing beech bark disease was introduced, with greater than 30% of living trees showing growth releases in those decades. Another synchronous release occurred in the 1930s when blight-killed chestnuts were removed; 16% of trees showed releases. Both of these intermediate-severity disturbances involved human introduction of invasive species. Thus, we documented a natural disturbance regime of small-scale gap dynamics, punctuated by more severe anthropogenic disturbances in the twentieth century. These relatively frequent, intermediate-severity events probably mean that the forest's current composition is non-equilibrial. Hemlock may continue to decline while beech maintains its dominance by constant regeneration in both gaps and shade, and by responding to disturbance with root suckering and growth pulses. The codominance of sugar maple may be relatively recent, and perhaps temporary, as we found little sugar maple recruitment before 1875 or after 1950, and three times fewer sugar maple saplings now than in the early 1900s. Despite being protected as a park, the development of this old-growth forest has been shaped more by disease-causing invasive species than natural disturbances over the past century. This result emphasizes the pervasiveness of human impacts even in communities we look to as examples of natural pattern and process.