Primary succession and forest development on coastal Lake Michigan sand dunes

TitlePrimary succession and forest development on coastal Lake Michigan sand dunes
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1998
AuthorsLichter JPaul
JournalEcological Monographs

Vegetation and soil properties were described across a well-dated sand-dune chronosequence bordering northern Lake Michigan to document patterns and rates of primary succession and forest ecosystem development, and to determine environmental constraints that potentially drive succession and regulate species diversity. The site experienced frequent and continuing formation of 72 shore-parallel dune ridges over the past 2375 yr. Across the chronosequence represented byt he youngest 13 dune ridges aged 25-440 yr, there were clear patterns of species turnover and community convergence as well as successional changes in species diversity, aboveground biomass, aboveground litter production, net ecosystem production, nutrient pools, and nutrient cycling. Dune-building species were replaced by evergreen shrubs and bunchgrass within 100 yr, which in turn, were replaced by mixed pine forest within 345 yr. Plant species richness increased to a peak in developing forest at 285 yr but thereafter decreased as early-successional species disappeared from the communities. Rates of species addition peaked between 95 and 145 yr as forest species invaded, whereas rates of species loss peaked between 345 and 440 yr as early-successional species were lost from the developing forest. Development of the forest ecosystem required ~300 yr (i.e., 145-440 years). Total ecosystem carbon increased in a logistic manner to 128 Mg C/ha, with net ecosystem production peaking at 30 g C/m2/yr in developing forest. Aboveground biomass and O horizon mass increased to ~137 Mg/ha and ~79 Mg/ha, respectively, whereas aboveground litter production increased to 3.5 Mg/ha/yr at 440 yr, but thereafter varied between 175 and 350 Mg/ha/yr. Total carbon and total nitrogen in the upper 15 cm of mineral soil and O horizon accumulated to ~42 Mg/ha and ~1.36 Mg/ha, respectively. Estimated average rates of carbon and nitrogen accumulation over 440 yr of ecosystem aggradation were 23.2 m/m2/yr for carbon and 0.38 g/m2/yr for nitrogen. Because nitrogen-fixing plants are rare on the upland dune ridges, ecosystem aggradation depends largely on atmospheric nitrogen inputs. Following colonization by conifers, soil acidification resulted in rapid leaching losses of calcium and magnesium, whereas phosphorus and potassium were cycled more tightly. The dune chronosequence represents a complex gradient of changing environmental constraints that differentially reduce the survival, growth, and reproduction of plant species. Young dune ridges near the lake shore are characterized by strong winds, sand burial and erosion, high insolation, high rates of evaporation, and low availability of nitrogen and phosphorus. These conditions ameliorate with increasing dune age as wind velocities and sand movement diminish with distance from the lake, as accumulating organic matter improves the moisture-holding capacity and nitrogen availability of the soil, and as mineral weathering mobilizes soil phosphorus. However, in developing forest, light and cationic nutrients may become limiting, and decreased light availability, cool soil temperatures, and accumulation of a thick forest floor may limit recruitment from seed for many species. These numerous potential environmental constraints suggest a considerable complexity in this ostensibly simple ecosystem.