Sustainable aspen ecosystems hold great promise for global biodiversity conservation. These forests harbor relatively high species diversity, yet are threatened by fire suppression, land development, timber-focused management, extended droughts, and chronic herbivory. “Pando” is a high-profile quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) forest in Utah, USA which is putatively the ‘largest living organism on earth.’ Pando comprises an estimated 47,000 genetically identical stems, but is threatened by human impacts. Our interest in the present study is whether changes to the giant organism were affecting understorey vegetation and whether discrete zones are displaying divergent community compositions. For instance, recent research has demonstrated strong herbivory impacts that are affecting portions of Pando differentially. This study consists of 20 randomly distributed vegetation survey plots within three de facto management regimes (hereafter, management group or type) along an herbivory protection gradient: No Fence, 2013 Fence (total protection), and 2014 Fence (imperfect protection). The plant survey was supplemented by previously-established forest and herbivore measurements to test for community assemblage explanatory agents. Sixty-eight species were found across the entire study. Analyses indicated strong links between management group orientation, species assemblages, and tree density/canopy openings. We found distinct evidence that within management group species composition was more similar than across groups for two of the three pairings. However, the other pairing, the most successfully protected area and the completely unprotected area, was not statistically distinct; likely a result a deteriorating overstorey in these two areas, whereas the third management type (2014 Fence) exhibited higher canopy cover. Indicator species analysis found that a small group of plant species had statistical allegiances to specific management groups, suggesting resource preference selection within Pando. Ordination analysis searching for causal factors reached two broad conclusions: (1) aspen regeneration, and therefore long-term resilience, is being negatively affected by chronic animal browsing and (2) current understorey species diversity is highest where forest canopy gaps are abundant. Future research at the massive Pando clone will continue informing linkages between understorey communities and overstorey-driven ecological pathways.
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