The impact of deer on relationships between tree growth and mortality in an old-growth beech-maple forest

The impact of deer on relationships between tree growth and mortality in an old-growth beech-maple forest
Zachary T. Long, Thomas H. Pendergast IV, Walter P. Carson, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh
Forest Ecology and Management 252 (2007)

White-tailed deer have been at high levels in the northeastern forests of the United States for decades and have strongly influenced forest dynamics. In this long-term study, we found that the composition of the overstory and understory assemblages of an old-growth beech-maple forest differed significantly. We used exclosures to test the hypothesis that deer contributed to these differences by differentially influencing the relationship between growth and mortality among seedlings of the six most abundant tree species. In the absence of deer, we found that the mortality of the six species decreased with increased growth and that interspecific differences in the relationships between growth and mortality coincided with previously observed shade-tolerance rankings. In the presence of deer, mortality decreased with growth only for the browse tolerant species (American beech, black cherry, and sugar maple). Mortality did not decrease with growth for preferred browse species (oak species, ash species, and red maple), rather, this relationship was eliminated in the presence of deer. The changes in growth and mortality relationships in the presence of browsing generally corresponded to observed changes in seedling density following the removal of deer. Sugar maple, ash, black cherry, and total stem density increased in the absence of deer. Our results suggest that the relationship between survival and growth in the understory, a metric of shade tolerance, is a fairly plastic response that varies depending upon the presence and absence of herbivores. Our results indicate that deer have contributed to the differences between understory and overstory vegetation, with browse tolerant species increasing in abundance at the expense of preferred browse species.
[Science Direct]