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The Successional Dynamics of Lightning-initiated Canopy Gaps in the Mangrove Forests of Shark River, Everglades National Park, USA

A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Biology by
Kevin Richard Terrence Whelan

Professor Steven F. Oberbauer, Major Professor

Florida International University
Miami, Florida

Abstract of the Dissertation

Gap succession is a significant determinant of structure and development in most forest communities. Lightning strikes are an important source of canopy gaps in the mangrove forest of Everglades National Park. I investigated the successional dynamics of lightning-initiated canopy gaps to determine their influence on forest stand structure of the mixed mangrove forests (Rhizophora mangle, Laguncularia racemosa, and Avicennia germinans) of the Shark River. I measured gap size, gap shape, light environment, soil characteristics, woody debris, and fiddler crab abundance. I additionally measured the vegetative composition in a chronosequences of gap successional stages (new, recruiting, and growing gaps). I recorded survivorship, recruitment, growth and soil elevation dynamics within a subset of new and growing gaps. I determined the relationship between intact forest soil elevation and site hydrology in order to interpret the effects of lightning disturbance on soil elevation dynamics.

Gap size averaged 289 ± 20 m2 (± 1SE) and light transmittance decreased exponentially as gaps filled with saplings. Fine woody debris was highest in recruiting gaps. Soil strength was lower in the gaps than in the forest. The abundance of large and medium fiddler crab burrows increased linearly with total seedling abundance. Soil surface elevation declined in newly formed lightning gaps; this loss was due to a combination of superficial erosion (8.5 mm) and subsidence (60.9 mm). A distinct two-cohort recruitment pattern was evident in the seedling/sapling surveys, suggesting a partitioning of the succession between individuals present before and after lightning strike. In new gaps, the seedling recruitment rate was twice as high as in forest and the sapling population increased. At the growing gap stage, R. mangle seedling mortality was 10 times greater and sapling mortality was 13 times greater than recruitment. Growing gaps had reduced seedling stem elongation, sapling growth and adult growth. However, a few individuals (R. mangle saplings) were able to recruit into the adult life stage. In conclusion, the high density of R. mangle seedlings and saplings imply that lightning strike disturbances in these mangrove forests favor their recruitment over that of A. germinans and L. racemosa.

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