Analysis of ecological thresholds in a temperate forest undergoing dieback.

24 Jan 2018

Positive feedbacks in drivers of degradation can cause threshold responses in natural ecosystems. Though threshold responses have received much attention in studies of aquatic ecosystems, they have been neglected in terrestrial systems, such as forests, where the long time-scales required for monitoring have impeded research. In this study we explored the role of positive feedbacks in a temperate forest that has been monitored for 50 years and is undergoing dieback, largely as a result of death of the canopy dominant species (Fagus sylvatica, beech). Statistical analyses showed strong non-linear losses in basal area for some plots, while others showed relatively gradual change. Beech seedling density was positively related to canopy openness, but a similar relationship was not observed for saplings, suggesting a feedback whereby mortality in areas with high canopy openness was elevated. We combined this observation with empirical data on size- and growth-mediated mortality of trees to produce an individual-based model of forest dynamics. We used this model to simulate changes in the structure of the forest over 100 years under scenarios with different juvenile and mature mortality probabilities, as well as a positive feedback between seedling and mature tree mortality. This model produced declines in forest basal area when critical juvenile and mature mortality probabilities were exceeded. Feedbacks in juvenile mortality caused a greater reduction in basal area relative to scenarios with no feedback. Non-linear, concave declines of basal area occurred only when mature tree mortality was 3-5 times higher than rates observed in the field. Our results indicate that the longevity of trees may help to buffer forests against environmental change and that the maintenance of old, large trees may aid the resilience of forest stands. In addition, our work suggests that dieback of forests may be avoidable providing pressures on mature and juvenile trees do not pass critical thresholds.