Responses of the structure and function of the understory plant communities to precipitation reduction across forest ecosystems in Germany

Understory plant communities are essential for the recruitment of trees making up future forests. Independent of plant diversity, the understory across different forest ecosystems shows considerable physiological acclimation and structural stability towards drought events, which are expected to occur more frequently in future.

Context. Understory plant communities are essential for the recruitment of trees making up the future forest. It is so far poorly understood how climate change will affect understory in beech and conifer forests managed at different intensity levels.
Aims. We hypothesized that drought would affect transpiration and carbon isotope discrimination but not species richness and diversity. Moreover, we assumed that forest management intensity will modify the responses to drought of the understory community.
Methods. We set up roofs in forests with a gradient of management intensities (unmanaged beech—managed beech—intensively managed conifer forests) in three regions across Germany. A drought event close to the 2003 drought was imposed in two consecutive years.
Results. After 2 years, the realized precipitation reduction was between 27% and 34%. The averaged water content in the top 20 cm of the soil under the roof was reduced by 2% to 8% compared with the control. In the 1st year, leaf level transpiration was reduced for different functional groups, which scaled to community transpiration modified by additional effects of drought on functional group leaf area. Acclimation effects in most functional groups were observed in the 2nd year.
Conclusion. Forest understory shows high plasticity at the leaf and community level, and high structural stability to changing climate conditions with drought events.

Climate change, Herb layer, Stable carbon isotope, Functional traits, Diversity

Publication Open Access
Felsmann, K., Baudis, M., Kayler, Z.E. et al. Annals of Forest Science (2018) 75: 3.

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