Generation of spatial patterns in boreal forest landscapes

John Pastor, Yosef Cohen, Ron Moen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Boreal forests are composed of a few plant species with contrasting traits with respect to ecosystem functioning and spatial patterning. Early successional deciduous species, such as birch and aspen, disperse seeds widely, do not tolerate low light and nitrogen availabilities, have rapidly decaying litter, and are highly preferred by herbivores. These later succeed to conifers, such as spruce and fir, which disperse seeds locally, tolerate low light levels and low nitrogen availability, have litter that decays slowly, and are unpalatable to most mammalian herbivores. Although there are also early successional conifers, such as jack pine and Scots pine, the aspen-birch-spruce-fir successional sequence is the most common over much of North America, and (without fir) in Fennoscandia and Siberia. The course of succession in these forests is controlled partly by seed dispersal and selective foraging by mammalian herbivores. Both of these processes are spatially dynamic, but little is known about how their spatial dynamics may affect ecosystem processes, such as nitrogen cycling or productivity. We present spatially explicit models that demonstrate the following: (a) Spatially explicit seed dispersal results in more dumped distribution of tree species and persistence of greater paper birch biomass than uniform seed rain across the landscape. Such results are consistent with current spatially explicit population models of dispersal and coexistence. (b) With localized seed dispersal, the concentrations of available soil nitrogen are distributed in larger patches with sharp transitions from low to high nitrogen availability near patch edges. In contrast, with a uniform seed rain, the distribution of soil nitrogen availability was more uniform and 'hotspots' were more localized. Thus, the spatial pattern of an ecosystem process (nitrogen cycling) is determined by seed dispersal and competition for light among competing populations. (c) A dispersing herbivore, such as moose, that selectively forages on early successional deciduous species with high quality litter, such as aspen or birch, and discriminates against late successional conifers, such as spruce or fir, imposes higher-order repeated patterns of plant species and biomass distribution on the landscape. Thus, seed dispersal and herbivore foraging correlate properties in adjacent patches but in different ways, and different spatial patterns emerge. Other processes, such as insect outbreaks, fire, and water flow, also may correlate properties between adjacent patches and result in additional patterns.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)439-450
Number of pages12
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 1999


  • Boreal forests
  • Herbivores
  • Nitrogen cycling
  • Seed dispersal
  • Spatial processes

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