Skip to main content
SLU publication database (SLUpub)

Research article2012Peer reviewed

Response of photosynthetic carbon gain to ecosystem retrogression of vascular plants and mosses in the boreal forest

Bansal, Sheel; Nilsson Hegethorn, Marie-Charlotte; Wardle, David


In the long-term absence of rejuvenating disturbances, forest succession frequently proceeds from a maximal biomass phase to a retrogressive phase characterized by reduced nutrient availability [notably nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P)] and net primary productivity. Few studies have considered how retrogression induces changes in ecophysiological responses associated with photosynthetic carbon (C) gain, and only for trees. We tested the hypothesis that retrogression would negatively impact photosynthetic C gain of four contrasting species, and that this impact would be greater for vascular plants (i.e., trees and shrubs) than for non-vascular plants (i.e., mosses). We used a 5,000-year-old chronosequence of forested islands in Sweden, where retrogression occurs in the long-term absence of lightning-ignited wildfires. Despite fundamental differences in plant form and ecological niche among species, vascular plants and mosses showed similar ecophysiological responses to retrogression. The most common effects of retrogression were reductions in photosynthesis and respiration per unit foliar N, increases in foliar N, delta C-13 and delta N-15, and decreases in specific leaf areas. In contrast, photosynthesis per unit mass or area generally did not change along the chronosequence, but did vary many-fold between vascular plants and mosses. The consistent increases in foliar N without corresponding increases in mass- or area-based photosynthesis suggest that other factor(s), such as P co-limitation, light conditions or water availability, may co-regulate C gain in retrogressive boreal forests. Against our predictions, traits of mosses associated with C and N were generally highly responsive to retrogression, which has implications for how mosses influence ecosystem processes in boreal forests.

Published in

2012, Volume: 169, number: 3, pages: 661-672