Conspecific negative density-dependent mortality and the structure of temperate forests
Factors that control tree seedling dynamics are critical determinants of forest diversity. We examined the role of density-dependent mortality and abiotic factors in the differential establishment and survival of tree seedlings at three, large, mapped forest plots in Indiana, Virginia, and Wisconsin, USA. We tested whether seedling densities and seedling survival are related to local biotic and abiotic factors with generalized linear mixed models. Spatial point pattern analyses were utilized to determine if the distribution patterns of seedlings and saplings are consistent with a pattern generated by negative density-dependent mortality with respect to conspecific trees.
Initial sampled seedling density for nearly a third of species showed a positive correlation with increasing conspecific basal area, indicating dispersal limitation, but few had any association with abiotic variables. By contrast, survival of seedlings over one year significantly declined with increasing conspecific basal area. Point pattern analyses indicated that nearly one-third of tree species had significantly over-dispersed point patterns of conspecific seedlings and saplings relative to adult densities; the majority of other species exhibited random spatial arrangements. Our results demonstrate that negative conspecific density-dependent mortality of seedlings could generate the spatial patterns observed at later life stages. By differentially favoring seedlings of other species, this process may contribute to the maintenance of tree diversity in temperate forests, just as others have demonstrated for tropical forests.