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Title: The formation of dense understory layers in the forest worldwide: consequences and implications for forest dynamics, biodiversity, and succession

Author: Royo, Alejandro A.; Carson, Walter P.;

Date: 2010

Source: In: Pye, John M.; Rauscher, H. Michael; Sands, Yasmeen; Lee, Danny C.; Beatty, Jerome S., tech. eds. Advances in threat assessment and their application to forest and rangeland management. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-802. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest and Southern Research Stations: 469-496

Publication Series: General Technical Report (GTR)

   Note: This article is part of a larger document. View the larger document

Description: Alterations to natural herbivore and disturbance regimes often allow a select suite of forest understory plant species to dramatically spread and form persistent, mono-dominant thickets. Following their expansion, this newly established understory canopy can alter tree seedling recruitment rates and exert considerable control over the rate and direction of secondary forest succession. No matter where these native plant invasions occur, they are characterized by one or more of the following: (1) the understory layer typically has greater vegetation cover and lower diversity than was common in forest understories in the past; (2) this layer can delay stand renewal and alter species composition by inhibiting tree regeneration; and (3) once this layer is formed, it can resist displacement by other species and remain intact for decades. In this paper, we evaluate the processes that trigger the expansion of several plant species native to forests and review their ecological characteristics to provide general guidelines in assessing native invasion risk in forest stands. We argue that major anthropogenic changes to disturbance and browsing regimes bring about the monopolization of the forest understory by native plants. In all cases reviewed, aggressive understory plant expansion followed alterations in overstory disturbance regimes. Although these disruptions included predictable and manageable impacts such as tree harvesting, other less predictable overstory disturbance agents including catastrophic fires, insect outbreaks, and pathogens were involved. Assessing and managing risk from these alternative threats is challenging as their occurrence is often erratic, hard to control, and not limited by land ownership and administrative boundaries. In many cases, the risk to forest understories was particularly acute if the effects of multiple stressors occurred in a stand, either in tandem or within a short period of time. Specifically, the synergy between overstory disturbance and uncharacteristic fire regimes or increased herbivore strongly controls species richness and leads to depauperate understories dominated by one or a few species. We suggest that aggressive expansion by native understory plant species can be explained by considering their ecological requirements in addition to their environmental context. Some plant species are particularly invasive by virtue of having life-history attributes that match one or more of the opportunities afforded by multiple disturbances. Increased overstory disturbance selects for shade-intolerant species with rapid rates of vegetative spread over slower growing, shade-tolerant herbs and shrubs. Altered fire regimes select for only those species that can survive the fire or resprout thereafter. Finally, overbrowsing selects for only those species that are well defended or tolerant to browsing. Ultimately, these processes create novel conditions that favor only a small subset of species that possess some combination of the following life-history characteristics: rapid vegetative growth, relatively shade intolerant, fire tolerant, and herbivore tolerant. The result is a low diversitybut dense understory that can persist for long periods of time even if the canopy closes. The framework advanced by this review could aid land managers in implementing informed management policies and practices that both limit the spread of these plants and target control and remediation treatments directed at the precise mechanism of interference. We suggest vigilant monitoring of stand conditions to ensure that alterations to the overstory and understory disturbance regimes do not operate concurrently, particularly when control over these factors falls under the purview of different management agencies (e.g., wild game vs. forestry management agencies).

Keywords: competition, interference, invasive, recalcitrant understory layer, regeneration

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  • This article was written and prepared by U.S. Government employees on official time, and is therefore in the public domain.
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Citation:


Royo, Alejandro A.; Carson, Walter P. 2010. The formation of dense understory layers in the forest worldwide: consequences and implications for forest dynamics, biodiversity, and succession. In: Pye, John M.; Rauscher, H. Michael; Sands, Yasmeen; Lee, Danny C.; Beatty, Jerome S., tech. eds. Advances in threat assessment and their application to forest and rangeland management. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-802. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest and Southern Research Stations: 469-496.

 


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