The even-aged northern hardwood forests of the Upper Great Lakes Region are undergoing an ecological transition during which structural and biotic complexity is increasing. Early-successional aspen (Populus spp.) and birch (Betula papyrifera) are senescing at an accelerating rate and are being replaced by middle-successional species including northern red oak (Quercus rubra), red maple (Acer rubrum), and white pine (Pinus strobus). Canopy structural complexity may increase due to forest age, canopy disturbances, and changing species diversity. More structurally complex canopies may enhance carbon (C) sequestration in old forests. We hypothesize that these biotic and structural alterations will result in increased structural complexity of the maturing canopy with implications for forest C uptake. At the University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS), we combined a decade of observations of net primary productivity (NPP), leaf area index (LAI), site index, canopy tree-species diversity, and stand age with canopy structure measurements made with portable canopy lidar (PCL) in 30 forested plots. We then evaluated the relative impact of stand characteristics on productivity through succession using data collected over a nine-year period. We found that effects of canopy structural complexity on wood NPP (NPPw) were similar in magnitude to the effects of total leaf area and site quality. Furthermore, our results suggest that the effect of stand age on NPPw is mediated primarily through its effect on canopy structural complexity. Stand-level diversity of canopy-tree species was not significantly related to either canopy structure or NPPw. We conclude that increasing canopy structural complexity provides a mechanism for the potential maintenance of productivity in aging forests.
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