Canopy gaps create distinct microenvironments within the broader forest environment and provide a mechanism for regeneration and recruitment. In this study, we investigated patterns of sapling richness and composition in 40 canopy gaps in a secondary, mixed Quercus forest on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. We found that sapling richness was high, with 34 species represented in canopy gaps. A species-gap area curve revealed that sapling richness increased steadily with gap sizes up to ca. 200 m2, but then tended to level off. While minor components in the main forest canopy, Acer saccharum, Fagus grandifolia, and Acer rubrum were the most widespread and abundant species in gaps. Our analyses of floristic composition using ordination (NMS) and randomization techniques (MRPP) clarified the mechanisms responsible for structuring patterns of gap composition and species-environment relationships, including the effects of individual factors (gap formation mechanism, gap size, aspect, and soils) and their collective impacts. Snag-formed gaps were smaller in size and most common on southern exposures with stony loam soils. Gaps formed by uprooted trees were larger and most common on north-facing slopes with shallow, gravelly loam soils. Gap composition varied along these gradients. Saplings of current canopy dominant genera (Quercus and Carya) were largely restricted to small gaps on xeric sites, suggesting that gap-phase succession will result in a transition from a Quercus–Carya system to one with a much stronger Acer–Fagus component.
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