Do relationships between species and environmental gradients strengthen or weaken with tree life-stage (i.e., small seedlings, large seedlings, saplings, and mature trees)? Strengthened relationships may lead to distinct forest type boundaries, or weakening connections could lead to gradual ecotones and heterogeneous forest landscapes. We quantified the changes in forest dominance (basal area of tree species by life-stage) and environmental factors (elevation, slope, aspect, intercepted photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), summer soil moisture, and soil depth and texture) across 14 forest ecotones (n = 584, 10 m x 10 m plots) in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, U.S.A. Local, ecotone-specific species-environment relationships, based on multiple regression techniques, generally strengthened from the small seedling stage (multiple R2 ranged from 0.00 to 0.26) to the tree stage (multiple R2 ranged from 0.20 to 0.61). At the landscape scale, combined canonical correspondence analysis (CCA) among species and for all tree life-stages suggested that the seedlings of most species became established in lower-elevation, drier sites than where mature trees of the same species dominated. However, conflicting evidence showed that species-environment relationships may weaken with tree life-stage. Seedlings were only found in a subset of plots (habitats) occupied by mature trees of the same species. At the landscape scale, CCA results showed that species-environment relationships weakened somewhat from the small seedling stage (86.4% of the variance explained by the first two axes) to the tree stage (76.6% of variance explained). The basal area of tree species co-occurring with Pinus contorta Doug. ex. Loud declined more gradually than P. contorta basal area declined across ecotones, resulting in less-distinct forest type boundaries. We conclude that broad, gradual ecotones and heterogeneous forest landscapes are created and maintained by: (1) sporadic establishment of seedlings in sub-optimal habitats; (2) survivorship of saplings and mature trees in a wider range of environmental conditions than seedlings presently endure; and (3) the longevity of trees and persistence of tree species in a broad range of soils, climates, and disturbance regimes.
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Species-environment relationships and vegetation patterns: Effects of spatial scale and tree life-stage