Ecological - Second Order
Recovery after fire
Species that are primarily seral may form stable (self‐sustaining) communities under certain disturbance regimes or environmental conditions, yet such populations may also be particularly vulnerable to ecological change. Aspen (Populus spp.) are generally considered seral throughout the Northern Hemisphere, including P. tremuloides, the most widely distributed tree species in North America. Recent declines in aspen populations have occurred, especially along drought‐sensitive margins of its range and where fire exclusion and herbivory have promoted community transition. However, aspen also forms stable stands, and examination of the mechanisms that influence persistence can offer conservation insights, especially where populations are vulnerable to changing climate or altered disturbance dynamics. We sampled tree age and stand characteristics of isolated aspen forests in the arid Great Basin (USA) to determine if (1) aspen communities are more fire-dependent and seral or fire‐independent and stable; (2) ungulate browsing inhibits aspen stability; and (3) temporal patterns of vegetative reproduction (i.e., ramet establishment or “suckering”) are correlated with climate. Aspen size and age class densities strongly fit negative exponential distributions, whether grouped geographically or by functional type, suggesting landscape‐scale persistence. Continuous age distributions and high proportions of recruitment‐sized to overstory trees suggest stability at stand scales, with exceptions including stands with higher browsing pressure. Few stands had evidence of fire, and relationships between dead tree size and variability in live tree size suggest a lack of fire dependency. Several 5‐yr averaged climate variables and one sea surface temperature index were correlated with aspen ramet establishment densities over time, with strongest relationships occurring ~5 yr prior to establishment year, often followed by inverse relationships ~1 yr after. Indeed, aspen establishment density for a recent 41‐yr period was reliably reconstructed using antecedent climate conditions derived from a single drought index. Temporally synchronized aspen ramet establishment across the study region may be due to climate‐driven storage of nonstructural carbohydrate reserves in clonal root systems later used for regeneration. Complex regeneration dynamics of these self‐sustaining aspen stands, especially sensitivity to climate variability, suggest they may serve as harbingers of ecological change in the arid Great Basin and in other aspen populations near their range margin.