Spatial heterogeneity of vegetation is an important landscape characteristic, but is difficult to assess due to scale-dependence. Here we examine how spatial patterns in the forest canopy affect those of understory plants, using the shrub Canada buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis
(L.) Nutt.) as a focal species. Evergreen and deciduous forest canopy and buffaloberry shrub presence were measured with line-intercept sampling along ten 2-km transects in the Rocky Mountain foothills of west-central Alberta, Canada. Relationships between overstory canopy and understory buffaloberry presence were assessed for scales ranging from 2 m to 502 m. Fractal dimensions of both canopy and buffaloberry were estimated and then related using box-counting methods to evaluate spatial heterogeneity based on patch distribution and abundance. Effects of canopy presence on buffaloberry were scale-dependent, with shrub presence negatively related to evergreen canopy cover and positively related to deciduous cover. The effect of evergreen canopy was significant at a local scale between 2 m and 42 m, while that of deciduous canopy was significant at a meso-scale between 150 m and 358 m. Fractal analysis indicated that buffaloberry heterogeneity positively scaled with evergreen canopy heterogeneity, but was unrelated to that of deciduous canopy. This study demonstrates that evergreen canopy cover is a determinant of buffaloberry heterogeneity, highlighting the importance of spatial scale and canopy composition in understanding canopy-understory relationships.
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