Conifer Growth and Reproduction in Urban Forest Fragments: Predictors of Future Responses to Global Change?

By: Anna M. O’Brien, Ailene K. Ettinger, and Janneke HilleRisLambers

Seattle, WA (January 14, 2013) – Global change has a large and growing influence on forests, particularly in urban and urbanizing areas. Compared to rural forests, urban forests may experience warmer temperatures, higher CO2 levels, and greater nitrogen deposition, with exacerbated differences at urban forest edges. Thus, comparing urban to rural forests may help predict future effects of global change on forests.

Researchers focused on the conifer western red-cedar (Thuja plicata) to test three hypotheses: at urban forest edges, relative to rural forests and urban forest centers, trees experience 1) higher temperatures and nitrogen levels, 2) lower seedling recruitment, and 3) greater growth. We additionally tested anecdotal reports that 4) tree seedling recruitment in urban and rural forests is much lower than in “pristine” old-growth forests.

To test these hypotheses, we quantified air temperature, soil nitrate, adult T. plicata growth and seedling recruitment in five urban and three rural parks at both forest edges and centers. We also quantified T. plicata recruitment at five old-growth “pristine” sites. Temperatures were highest at urban forest edges, and soil nitrate was highest in urban forests. In urban relative to rural forests, we observed greater T. plicata growth, but no difference in seedling densities. However, seedling densities were lower in urban and rural forests than in old-growth forests.

In all, our results suggest urban influences enhance adult T. plicata growth, but not seedling recruitment. Recruitment in urban and rural forests was reduced compared to old-growth forests, implying that fragmentation and logging reduce T. plicata seedling recruitment.

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Conifer growth and reproduction in urban forest fragments: Predictors of future responses to global change?