Date of Award

2014

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Plant Biology

First Advisor

Brian Beckage

Abstract

How and why species’ ranges shift has long been a focus of ecology but is now becoming increasingly important given the current rate of climatic and environmental change. In response to global warming, species will need to migrate northward or upward to stay within their climatic tolerances. The ability of species to migrate will determine their fate and affect the community compositions of the future. However, to more accurately predict the future extent of species, we must identify and understand their responses to past and current climatic and environmental changes. The first place change is expected to occur is within ecotones where the ranges of many species converge and individuals exist at the limits of their environmental tolerances. In montane regions, these boundaries are compressed, creating a situation in which even relatively small changes in conditions can lead to shifts in the elevational ranges of species.

In this dissertation, I examine the responses of forests in the Green Mountains of Vermont to recent climatic and environmental change in an attempt to understand how future climate change will affect their location and composition. I focus on the Boreal-Deciduous Ecotone (BDE), where the high elevation spruce-fir forests converge with the lower elevation northern hardwoods. In addition to investigating adult trees within the BDE, I also examine the responses of understory herbs and tree seedlings to changes in environmental and climatic factors. Factors considered in these investigations include temperature, soil environment, light environment, invasive species, competition, disturbance and many others. I will examine the complex range of responses in forest species that results from prolonged exposure to these forces alone and in combination.

I have attempted to identify the responses of forest species to environmental changes by resurveying historic vegetation plots (Chapter 2), experimentally manipulating the growing environment of tree seedlings (Chapter 3) and performing dendrochronological analyses on tree rings (Chapter 4). Through my resurvey of historic vegetation plots, I determined the degree to which understory species have shifted as individuals or as groups. I also identified a set of novel understory communities that have developed since the 1960's in response to recent climate change, acid deposition and invasive species (Chapter 2). By transplanting and artificially warming tree seedlings, I identified factors responsible for limiting the growth and survival of northern hardwood species above the BDE. Temperature was the primary factor limiting sugar maple (Acer saccharum) at high elevations, while yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) was limited almost exclusively by light (Chapter 3). Dendrochronological studies of sugar maples indicated that prolonged exposure to acidified soils has only recently caused growth declines and has altered their relationship to climate (Chapter 4). Together, these studies have produced a cohesive picture of how northeastern montane forests have responded to recent climate change and other anthropogenic impacts. These findings can be used to help predict future species' ranges and identify species that may not be capable of migrating fast enough on their own to keep pace with changes in climatic conditions.

Language

en

Number of Pages

229 p.