, Volume 183, Issue 1, pp 133-145
Date: 20 Oct 2005

Effects of gap size and associated changes in light and soil moisture on the understorey vegetation of a Hungarian beech forest

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Abstract

In European beech forests windstorms often create canopy gaps and change the level of incident light, soil moisture and nutrient availability on the forest floor. Understanding the interrelations between gap size and environmental change, and the effects these have on regeneration processes is a prerequisite for developing techniques of nature-based forestry. The aims of this study were to investigate the effects of gap size on the resulting spatial distributions of key abiotic environmental variables (light and soil moisture) in gaps, and to study how light and soil moisture affect the abundance and distribution of herb layer species. To do this we used eight artificially created gaps – three large (diameter: 35–40 m) and five small (diameter: 10–15 m) – in a mesotrophic submontane beech forest. Data on species’ importance and substrate types were collected in systematically distributed 1 m×1 m quadrats before gap creation and on four occasions during the next two growing seasons. Hemispherical photographs were taken and analysed to estimate relative light intensity. Soil moisture was measured by frequency domain and capacitance probes. It was found that gap size had a profound effect on the environmental variables measured. While relative light intensity values in small gaps did not reach those in large gaps, soil moisture levels did reach similar maximum values in gap centres regardless of gap size. Richness, composition and total cover of herbaceous vegetation were different in small versus large gaps. Much of this difference was attributed to the presence of specific relative light intensities and also to the increased amount of available soil moisture in gaps. Species were differently affected by the combined effects of light and soil moisture, as well as by differences in available substrates. All this resulted in species-specific distribution patterns within gaps.