Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Forest Science (PhD)

College, School or Department Name

School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Christopher Raymond Webster


Throughout the Upper Great Lakes region, alterations to historic disturbance regimes have influenced plant community dynamics in hemlock-hardwood forests. Several important mesic forest species, eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), and Canada yew (Taxus canadensis), are in decline due to exploitive logging practices used at the turn of the 20th century and the wave of intense fires that followed. Continued regeneration and recruitment failure is attributed to contemporary forest management practices and overbrowsing by white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Therefore, I examined the influence of two concurrent disturbances, overstory removal and herbivory, on plant community dynamics in two hemlock-hardwood forests. I measured the post-disturbance regeneration response (herbaceous and woody species) inside and outside of deer exclosures in 20 artificial canopy gaps (50 – 450 m2) and monitored survival and growth for hundreds of planted seedlings.

The results of this research show that interacting disturbances can play a large role in shaping plant community composition and structure in hemlock-hardwood forests. White-tailed deer herbivory homogenized the post-disturbance plant communities across the experimental gradient of gap areas, essentially making species compositions in small gaps “look like” those in large gaps. Deer browsing also influenced probability of survival for planted Canada yew cuttings; all else being equal an individual was nearly seven times more likely to survive if protected from herbivory (P < 0.001). In contrast, the ability of sugar maple (Acer saccharum) to persist under high levels of herbivory and respond rapidly to overstory release appears to be related to the presence of stem layering(i.e., portions of below-ground prostrate stem). Layering occurred in 52% of excavated saplings (n = 100) and was significantly associated with increased post-disturbance height growth. Understory light was also important to planted seedling establishment and height growth. Higher levels of direct under-canopy light negatively impacted survival for shade-tolerant hemlock and Canada yew, while an increase in diffuse light was linked to a higher probability of survival for yellow birch and height growth for hemlock and Canada yew. Increases in white pine height growth were also significantly associated with a decrease in canopy cover.