Experimental and observational evidence of negative conspecific density dependence in temperate ectomycorrhizal trees
Conspecific negative density dependence (CNDD) promotes tree species diversity by reducing recruitment near conspecific adults due to biotic feedbacks from herbivores, pathogens, or competitors. While this process is well-described in tropical forests, tests of temperate tree species range from strong positive to strong negative density dependence. To explain this, several studies have suggested that tree species traits may help predict the strength and direction of density dependence: for example, ectomycorrhizal-associated tree species typically exhibit either positive or weaker negative conspecific density dependence. More generally, the strength of density dependence may be predictably related to other species-specific ecological attributes such as shade tolerance, or the relative local abundance of a species. To test the strength of density dependence and whether it affects seedling community diversity in a temperate forest, we tracked the survival of seedlings of three ectomycorrhizal-associated species experimentally planted beneath conspecific and heterospecific adults on the Prospect Hill tract of the Harvard Forest, in Massachusetts, USA. Experimental seedling survival was always lower under conspecific adults, which increased seedling community diversity in one of six treatments. We compared these results to evidence of CNDD from observed sapling survival patterns of 28 species over approximately 8 years in an adjacent 35-ha forest plot. We tested whether species-specific estimates of CNDD were associated with mycorrhizal association, shade tolerance, and local abundance. We found evidence of significant, negative conspecific density dependence (CNDD) in 23 of 28 species, and positive conspecific density dependence in two species. Contrary to our expectations, ectomycorrhizal-associated species generally exhibited stronger (e.g., more negative) CNDD than arbuscular mycorrhizal-associated species. CNDD was also stronger in more shade-tolerant species but was not associated with local abundance. Conspecific adult trees often have a negative influence on seedling survival in temperate forests, particularly for tree species with certain traits. Here we found strong experimental and observational evidence that ectomycorrhizal-associating species consistently exhibit CNDD. Moreover, similarities in the relative strength of density dependence from experiments and observations of sapling mortality suggest a mechanistic link between negative effects of conspecific adults on seedling and sapling survival and local tree species distributions.