Studies of tree recruitment are many, but they provide few general insights into the role of recruitment limitation for population dynamics. That role depends on the vital rates (transitions) from seed production to sapling stages and on overall population growth. To determine the state of our understanding of recruitment limitation we examined how well we can estimate parameters corresponding to these vital rates. Our two-part analysis consists of (1) a survey of published literature to determine the spatial and temporal scale of sampling that is basis for parameter estimates, and (2) an analysis of extensive data sets to evaluate sampling intensity found in the literature. We find that published studies focus on fine spatial scales, emphasizing large numbers of small samples within a single stand, and tend not to sample multiple stands or variability across landscapes. Where multiple stands are sampled, sampling is often inconsistent. Sampling of seed rain, seed banks, and seedlings typically span 1 yr and rarely last 5 yr. Most studies of seeding establishment and growth consider effects of a single variable and a single life history stage. By examining how parameter estimates are affected by the spatial and temporal extent of sampling we find that few published studies are sufficiently extensive to capture the variability in recruitment stages. Early recruitment stages are especially variable and require samples across multiple years and multiple stands. Ironically, the longest duration data sets are used to estimate mortality rates, which are less variable (in time) than are early life history stages. Because variables that affect recruitment rates interact, studies of these interactions are needed to assess their full impacts. We conclude that greater attention to spatially extensive and longer duration sampling for early life history stages is needed to assess the role of recruitment limitation in forests.
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