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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Understory functional groups and fire history but not experimental warming drive tree seedling performance in unmanaged boreal forests

Jessen, Maria-Theresa; Krab, Eveline J.; Lett, Signe; Nilsson, Marie-Charlotte; Teuber, Laurenz; Wardle, David A.; Dorrepaal, Ellen


IntroductionSurvival and growth of tree seedlings are key processes of regeneration in forest ecosystems. However, little is known about how climate warming modulates seedling performance either directly or in interaction with understory vegetation and post-fire successional stages. MethodsWe measured survival (over 3 years) and growth of seedlings of three tree species (Betula pubescens, Pinus sylvestris, and Picea abies) in a full-factorial field experiment with passive warming and removal of two plant functional groups (feather moss and/or ericaceous shrubs) along a post-fire chronosequence in an unmanaged boreal forest. ResultsWarming had no effect on seedling survival over time or on relative biomass growth. Meanwhile, moss removal greatly increased seedling survival overall, while shrub removal canceled this effect for B. pubescens seedlings. In addition, B. pubescens and P. sylvestris survival benefitted most from moss removal in old forests (>260 years since last fire disturbance). In contrast to survival, seedling growth was promoted by shrub removal for two out of three species, i.e., P. sylvestris and P. abies, meaning that seedling survival and growth are governed by different understory functional groups affecting seedling performance through different mechanism and modes of action. DiscussionOur findings highlight that understory vegetation and to a lesser extent post-fire successional stage are important drivers of seedling performance while the direct effect of climate warming is not. This suggests that tree regeneration in future forests may be more responsive to changes in understory vegetation or fire regime, e.g., indirectly caused by warming, than to direct or interactive effects of rising temperatures.


climate change; forest fire; moss; plant functional group removal; shrubs; survival; forest regeneration

Published in

Frontiers in forests and global change
2023, Volume: 6, article number: 1130532