Many forests of eastern North American are undergoing a species composition shift in which maples (Acer spp.) are increasingly important while oak (Quercus spp.) regeneration and recruitment has become increasingly scarce. This dynamic in species composition occurs across a large and geographically complex region. The elimination of fire has been postulated as the driver of this dynamic; however, some assumptions underlying this postulate have not been completely examined, and alternative hypotheses remain underexplored. Through literature review, and a series of new analyses, we examined underlying assumptions of the “oak and fire” hypothesis and explored a series of alternative hypotheses based on well‐known ecosystem drivers: climate change, land‐use change, the loss of foundation and keystone species, and dynamics in herbivore populations. We found that the oak–maple dynamic began during a shift in climate regime‐from a time of frequent, severe, multi‐year droughts to a period of increased moisture availability. Anthropogenic disturbance on the landscape changed markedly during this same time, from an era of Native American utilization, to a time characterized by low population densities, to Euro‐American settlement and subsequent land transmogrification. During the initiation of the oak‐maple dynamic, a foundation species, the American chestnut, was lost as a canopy tree across a broad range. Several important browsers and acorn predators had substantial population dynamics during this period, e.g. white‐tailed deer populations grew substantially concurrent with increasing oak recruitment failure. In conclusion, our analyses suggest that oak forests are reacting to marked changes in a suite of interlocking factors. We propose a “multiple interacting ecosystem drivers hypothesis”, which provides a more encompassing framework for understanding oak forest dynamics.
Ecography – Wiley
Published: Apr 1, 2011
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