Skip to main content

Canopy gaps facilitate upslope shifts in montane conifers but not in temperate deciduous trees in the Northeastern United States


Tourville, Jordon; Wason, Jay; Dovciak, Martin (2022), Canopy gaps facilitate upslope shifts in montane conifers but not in temperate deciduous trees in the Northeastern United States, Dryad, Dataset,


Many montane tree species are expected to migrate upslope as climate warms, but it is not clear if forest canopy gaps, which can facilitate tree seedling recruitment, serve as an important mechanism driving tree species range shifts. Patterns of tree seedling establishment can inform us about early stages of tree species migrations and are critical to examine in the context of global climate change.

We contrasted elevational distributions of tree seedlings both within and outside of forest canopy gaps with the distributions of conspecific adults and saplings across the deciduous-coniferous ecotone on ten mountains in four states of the northeastern United States. We tested if seedling distributions of four dominant tree species (Abies balsamea, Picea rubens, Acer saccharum, and Fagus grandifolia) were shifted upslope of conspecific adult and sapling distributions. We also examined if this shift was facilitated by canopy gaps and what environmental drivers affected species distributions.

There was limited seedling recruitment of dominant tree species at the temperate-coniferous ecotone, which we attributed to (i) an observed downslope shift of seedling distributions of the low-elevation deciduous species (Acer saccharum, Fagus grandifolia) and (ii) an upslope shift in seedling distributions of the high-elevation conifers (Abies balsamea, Picea rubens). The upslope shift of conifer seedlings contrasts with our previous research at these sites which observed downslope shifts of sapling distributions in Picea rubens, suggesting that seedlings may be responding to more recent climate warming. Canopy gaps in high-elevation conifer forests facilitated these upslope shifts by promoting conifer seedling recruitment. However, gaps at lower elevations did not play a significant role in seedling recruitment or the observed downslope shifts of the dominant deciduous species. Climate was the dominant predictor of adult tree distributions whereas both climate and soil were important predictors of seedling distributions.

Synthesis. Our study illustrates that tree seedlings have the potential for monitoring the early stages of tree species migrations, and particularly so in canopy gaps in high-elevation conifer forests. Further, we stress that species range shifts are sensitive to local scale heterogeneity in light availability (i.e., canopy gaps) and other non-climatic factors.

Usage notes

See associated README excel file


National Science Foundation, Award: NSFBCS-GSS-1759724

USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, McIntire Stennis Program, Award: ME0- 42121

Botanical Society of America, Award: Graduate Student Research Award