Evaluating forest ecological integrity remains a major challenge for ecologists. We analyzed understory vegetation using an approach that combined plant functional types and vertical stratification to evaluate the effects of human disturbances on the ecological integrity of sugar maple-dominated stands in southern Québec. Ecological integrity was evaluated by analyzing the divergence of understory species assemblages from those observed in comparable unmanaged forest. Multivariate analyses of biological traits revealed 13 emergent groups that share common traits associated with a similar life history strategy. Responses of these groups, of specific traits, and of understory structure to different human disturbances were tested. Nine of the 13 emergent groups varied in occurrence or diversity among disturbance types. Analyses also revealed a set of traits specifically associated with unmanaged old growth forest, indicating that species possessing these traits may be sensitive to human disturbance. Overall, the understory vegetation assemblage was found to be relatively stable among all human disturbances investigated. However, our results suggest some issues of possible long-term conservation concern given a continuation of human disturbances: (i) an increase of species associated with open environment, including exotic species; (ii) a decrease of spring geophytes; (iii) a decrease of certain shade-tolerant forbs; and (iv) a modification of understory structure by the development of a dense sapling stratum.
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Vol. 14 • No. 2