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Insect herbivores increase mortality and reduce tree seedling growth of some species in temperate forest canopy gaps


Insect herbivores help maintain forest diversity through selective predation on seedlings of vulnerable tree species. Although the role of natural enemies has been well-studied in tropical systems, relatively few studies have experimentally manipulated insect abundance in temperate forests and tracked impacts over multiple years. We conducted a three-year experiment (2012-2014) deterring insect herbivores from seedlings in new treefall gaps in deciduous hardwood forests in Maryland. During this study, we tracked recruitment of all tree seedlings, as well as survivorship and growth of 889 individual seedlings from five tree species: Acer rubrum, Fagus grandifolia, Fraxinus spp., Liriodendron tulipifera, and Liquidambar styraciflua. Insect herbivores had little effect on recruitment of any tree species, although there was a weak indication that recruitment of A. rubrum was higher in the presence of herbivores. Insect herbivores reduced survivorship of L. tulipifera, but had no significant effects on A. rubrum, Fraxinus spp., F. grandifolia, or L. styraciflua. Additionally, insects reduced growth rates of early pioneer species A. rubrum, L. tulipifera, and L. styraciflua, but had little effect on more shade-tolerant species F. grandifolia and Fraxinus spp. Overall, by negatively impacting growth and survivorship of early pioneer species, forest insects may play an important but relatively cryptic role in forest gap dynamics, with potentially interesting impacts on the overall maintenance of diversity.

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