You are here

Study Reveals Impact of Colonial Land Use on Current Forest Composition

January 7, 2022
Printer-friendly version
Figures from the ForestGEO paper in PeerJ, showing colonial land use

By Anna Christensen

A study just published in PeerJ Life and Environment examines how anthropogenic and natural disturbances from past decades, and even centuries, affect the spatial and species composition of woody plants within a forest plot.

Harvard Forest Senior Ecologist David Orwig and collaborators (Jason Aylward, Hannah Buckley, Bradley Case, and Aaron Ellison) utilized the data from the first census of the Forest's 35-hectare ForestGEO plot, conducted between 2010 to 2014, to examine the relative abundance of different woody plant species and their spatial distribution within the forest plot. The census collected data on more than 108,000 live stems. The researchers then correlated this information with records from the Harvard Forest archive on histories of land use and abandonment within the plot, as well as with ecological factors and past natural disturbances.

The researchers found that the strongest predictive factors for the distribution and abundance of the most common tree species (including eastern hemlock, northern red oak, red maple, eastern white pine, sweet birch, swamp birch, and American beech) were: soil type, size of neighboring tree species, the specific point during the late 19th century at which fields were abandoned, and the type of forest that began growing after field abandonment as recorded in 1908.

The data suggest that the history of colonial land-use (among other ecological factors) continues to affect the structure and species composition of a forest, even more than a century after colonial farm abandonment.

Content Tags: