Folia Geobotanica

, Volume 47, Issue 2, pp 119–134 | Cite as

Overstory-Understory Relationships along Forest Type and Environmental Gradients in the Spring Mountains of Southern Nevada, USA

  • Scott R. AbellaEmail author
  • James C. Hurja
  • Douglas J. Merkler
  • Charles W. Denton
  • David G. Brewer


Isolated forested mountains in deserts have numerous ecological and societal values, but land-management practices (e.g., fire-regime alteration) and climate change can affect forest composition. We analyzed tree overstory-understory relationships on 123 sites in the Spring Mountains within the Mojave Desert near Las Vegas, Nevada, USA to assess three hypotheses. We hypothesized that: the tree species comprising understories are less tolerant of fire than species in overstories, reflecting land-management practices of fire exclusion; mid-elevation forests have the lowest overstory:understory similarity because this zone could have maximum species mixing; and overstory:understory similarity is correlated with environmental gradients (consisting of 14 topographic and soil variables). We found that Pinus monophylla comprised greater relative canopy cover in understories of juniper (32% relative cover) and pinyon-juniper (78%) forests than it did in overstories of these forests (0% and 53%). Similarly, fire-intolerant Abies concolor had 6-fold greater understory than overstory cover in forests with overstories dominated by the fire-tolerant Pinus ponderosa. Overstory:understory Sørensen similarity averaged 43%−77% among six forest types, and there was little support for the supposition that similarity was lowest in mid-elevation forests. Distributions of individual overstory and understory species more closely corresponded with environmental gradients than did overstory:understory similarity. Results suggest that there is high potential for change in at least two of the six dominant forest types of the Spring Mountains. The direction of change (species of moist, higher elevation sites establishing in understories of drier forests) is the opposite of what would be expected for forest adaptation to the warmer, drier, more fire-prone conditions projected for the next century in the southwestern USA.


Climate change Fire Management Soil Species distribution Tree replacement 



Data were provided for analysis by the U.S. Forest Service. Sharon Altman (University of Nevada Las Vegas) formatted Figs.  2 , 3 and 4 and Milind Bunyan and Sharon Altman created Fig.  1 . Wally Covington and the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University funded the analysis and writing. Associate Editor Laco Mucina and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments on the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Institute of Botany, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Scott R. Abella
    • 1
    Email author
  • James C. Hurja
    • 2
  • Douglas J. Merkler
    • 3
  • Charles W. Denton
    • 4
  • David G. Brewer
    • 4
  1. 1.School of Environmental and Public AffairsUniversity of Nevada Las VegasLas VegasUSA
  2. 2.Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, U.S. Forest ServiceLas VegasUSA
  3. 3.Natural Resources Conservation ServiceLas VegasUSA
  4. 4.Ecological Restoration InstituteNorthern Arizona UniversityFlagstaffUSA

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