Abstracts on Global Climate Change

Nov 2005

Refugial forests of the southern Appalachians: photosynthesis and survival in current-year Abies fraseri seedlings

Johnson, DM Smith, WK

TREE PHYSIOLOGY 25:11 1379-1387

Fraser fir (Abies fraseri (Pursh) Poiret) is an endemic, high-elevation conifer confined to six relict mountain-top communities in the southern Appalachian Mountains, USA. High adult mortality has occurred over the past 50 years, possibly the result of an introduced insect (Adelges piceae Ratzeburg), air pollution, or both. Knowledge of the mechanisms of and limitations to seedling establishment may allow reestablisment and perpetuation of this unique community type, notwithstanding global climate change. We monitored seedling emergence and mortality in relation to photosynthetic performance and water relations in microsites differing in canopy openness (sunlight exposure) over the summer of 2004. Abundance of cotyledonous seedlings in early summer was 2.3 times greater (849 versus 366 seedlings m(-2)) in microsites with lower sky exposure (greater canopy closure) than in microsites with greater sky exposure (greater canopy openness). In contrast, late-season abundance and survival were greater in areas beneath more open canopies than in areas beneath less open canopies (3.3 times and 11.7 times greater, respectively). However, newly emerged seedling survival in a completely open site (no overhead canopy) was zero, despite an initial density of 124 seedlings m(-2). Seedling water status was similar in open- and closed-canopy sites (-0.52 and -0.74 MPa, respectively). Photosynthetic carbon gain was higher in newly emerged seedlings at open canopy than at closed canopy sites, especially during early morning. Based on photosynthetic light response curves and measured sunlight regimes, seedlings in open canopy sites were estimated to assimilate 3.3-4.5 times more carbon than seedlings at closed sites. Reductions in carbon gain of closed-site seedlings, primarily a result of limited sunlight, corresponded to substantial increases in seedling mortality (98 versus 79% in open canopy sites). Thus, sunlight exposure, which reflects overstory canopy structure, appears to be an important factor influencing newly emerged seedling survival and distribution.

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