Context matters: Natural tree mortality can lead to neighbor growth release or suppression

Publications Type: 
Journal Article
Publication Number: 

Chin, Alana R.O.; Hille Ris Lambers, Janneke; Franklin, Jerry F. 2023. Context matters: Natural tree mortality can lead to neighbor growth release or suppression. Forest Ecology and Management. 529: 120735. doi:


Where competition suppresses tree growth, mortality of adjacent trees can release the surviving individuals, leading to a growth increase. However, primary forests are complicated systems, where trees interact in both competitive and facilitative ways mediated by their size, species, and the broad ecological context in which they grow. Thus, the magnitude and even direction of growth responses to the mortality of nearby trees may vary, which has implications for our understanding of community- and ecosystem-level dynamics following mortality events. Unfortunately, although many studies focus on the impacts of light availability and general crowding on tree growth, we know relatively little about the effects of naturally occurring mortality events on the growth of neighboring trees. To address this issue, we used 40 years of data from 15 permanent forest-monitoring plots in Mt Rainier old-growth forests, comparing observed to expected radial growth of individual trees following the death of their nearest neighbor. Although we found evidence of a general growth-release response, this was not universal among all trees, with small trees in particular exhibiting growth suppression (rather than release) following neighboring tree mortality. In addition to small size, growth-suppression was more likely if the dead neighbor was the same species, consistent with facilitative effects as mediated through belowground networks. At the stand level, the average growth release after nearest neighbor mortality was greatest in low-density stands with large trees, with elevation and community composition also playing a role. Decades more monitoring could reveal how long growth release (or suppression) is sustained by individual trees following neighboring mortality events, as well as potential response lags and the role of species identity in determining whether interactions with neighbors are competitive or facilitative. Nonetheless, our results suggest that although mature trees have competitive effects on their larger neighbors, they also have an important role in supporting the ingrowth of small trees. More broadly, we demonstrate that the nature of interactions between individual neighboring trees is highly context dependent.
Keywords: Competition, Facilitation, Growth release, Mt. Rainier, Permanent plot, Primary forest, Suppression, Thinning, Tree mortality