Landscape-scale changes in forest structure and functional traits along an Andes-to-Amazon elevation gradient
Abstract. Elevation gradients provide opportunities to explore environmental controls on forest structure and functioning. We used airborne imaging spectroscopy and lidar (light detection and ranging) to quantify changes in three-dimensional forest structure and canopy functional traits in twenty 25 ha landscapes distributed along a 3300 m elevation gradient from lowland Amazonia to treeline in the Peruvian Andes. Elevation was positively correlated with lidar-estimated canopy gap density and understory vegetation cover, and negatively related to canopy height and the vertical partitioning of vegetation in canopies. Increases in canopy gap density were tightly linked to increases in understory plant cover, and larger gaps (20–200 m2) produced 25–30 times the response in understory cover than did smaller gaps (< 5 m2). Vegetation NDVI and photosynthetic fractional cover decreased, while exposed non-photosynthetic vegetation and bare soil increased, with elevation. Scaling of gap size to gap frequency (λ) was, however, nearly constant along the elevation gradient. When combined with other canopy structural and functional trait information, this suggests near-constant canopy turnover rates from the lowlands to treeline, which occurs independent of decreasing biomass or productivity with increasing elevation. Our results provide the first landscape-scale quantification of forest structure and canopy functional traits with changing elevation, thereby improving our understanding of disturbance, demography and ecosystem processes in the Andes-to-Amazon corridor.