Predicting and understanding forest dynamics using a simple tractable model

Drew W. Purves, Jeremy W. Lichstein, Nikolay Strigul, Stephen Wilson Pacala

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

166 Scopus citations


The perfect-plasticity approximation (PPA) is an analytically tractable model of forest dynamics, defined in terms of parameters for individual trees, including allometry, growth, and mortality. We estimated these parameters for the eight most common species on each of four soil types in the US Lake states (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) by using short-term (≤15-year) inventory data from individual trees. We implemented 100-year PPA simulations given these parameters and compared these predictions to chronosequences of stand development. Predictions for the timing and magnitude of basal area dynamics and ecological succession on each soil were accurate, and predictions for the diameter distribution of 100-year-old stands were correct in form and slope. For a given species, the PPA provides analytical metrics for early-successional performance (H20, height of a 20-year-old open-grown tree) and late-successional performance (Ẑ *, equilibrium canopy height in monoculture). These metrics predicted which species were early or late successional on each soil type. Decomposing Ẑ * showed that (i) succession is driven both by superior understory performance and superior canopy performance of late-successional species, and (ii) performance differences primarily reflect differences in mortality rather than growth. The predicted late-successional dominants matched chronosequences on xeromesic (Quercus rubra) and mesic (codominance by Acer rubrum and Acer saccharum) soil. On hydromesic and hydric soils, the literature reports that the current dominant species in old stands (Thuja occidentalis) is now failing to regenerate. Consistent with this, the PPA predicted that, on these soils, stands are now succeeding to dominance by other late-successional species (e.g., Fraxinus nigra, A. rubrum).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)17018-17022
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number44
StatePublished - Nov 4 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Climate change
  • Community ecology
  • TASS
  • Trade-offs


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