Forest disturbance and growth processes are reflected in the geographic distribution of large canopy gaps across the Brazilian Amazon

Canopy gaps are openings in the forest canopy resulting from branch fall and tree mortality events. The geographical distribution of large canopy gaps may reflect underlying variation in mortality and growth processes. However, a lack of data at the appropriate scale has limited our ability to study this relationship until now.

We detected canopy gaps using a unique LiDAR data set consisting of 650 transects randomly distributed across 2500 km2 of the Brazilian Amazon. We characterized the size distribution of canopy gaps using a power-law and we explore the variation in the exponent, α. We evaluated how the α varies across the Amazon, in response to disturbance by humans and natural environmental processes that influence tree mortality rates.

We observed that South-eastern forests contained a higher proportion of large gaps than North-western, which is consistent with recent work showing greater tree mortality rates in the Southeast than the Northwest. Regions characterised by strong wind gust speeds, frequent lightning and greater water shortage also had a high proportion of large gaps, indicating that geographical variation in α is a reflection of underlying disturbance processes. Forests on fertile soils were also found to contain a high proportion of large gaps, in part because trees grow tall on these sites and create large gaps when they fall; thus canopy gap analysis picked up differences in growth as well as mortality processes. Finally, we found that human modified forests had a higher proportion of large gaps than intact forests, as we would expect given that these forests have been disturbed.

Synthesis: The proportion of large gaps in the forest canopy varied substantially over the Brazilian Amazon. We have shown that the trends can be explained by geographic variation in disturbance and growth. The frequency of extreme weather events is predicted to increase under climate change, and changes could lead to greater forest disturbance, which should be detectable as an increased proportion of large gaps in intact forests.

Reis (2022) Journal of Ecology

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