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Natural forest expansion on reclaimed coal mines in Northern Spain: the role of native shrubs as suitable microsites

Abstract

The characterization of suitable microsites for tree seedling establishment and growth is one of the most important tasks to achieve the restoration of native forest using natural processes in disturbed sites. For that, we assessed the natural Quercus petraea forest expansion in a 20-year-old reclaimed open-cast mine under sub-Mediterranean climate in northern Spain, monitoring seedling survival, growth, and recruitment during 5 years in three contrasting environments (undisturbed forest, mine edge, and mine center). Seedling density and proportion of dead branches decreased greatly from undisturbed forest towards the center of the mine. There was a positive effect of shrubs on Q. petraea seedling establishment in both mine environments, which increase as the environment undergoes more stress (from the mine edge to the center of the mine), and it was produced by different shrub structural features in each mine environment. Seedling survival reduction through time in three environments did not lead to a density reduction because there was a yearly recruitment of new seedlings. Seedling survival, annual growth, and height through time were greater in mine sites than in the undisturbed forest. The successful colonization patterns and positive neighbor effect of shrubs on natural seedlings establishment found in this study during the first years support the use of shrubs as ecosystem engineers to increase heterogeneity in micro-environmental conditions on reclaimed mine sites, which improves late-successional Quercus species establishment.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the mining company “UMINSA” for the information on their restoration procedures and permission to work at this mine, AEMET (Meteorological Spanish Agency) for providing meteorological data, and Fernando Valenciano Velasco for fieldwork assistance. We also thank three anonymous reviewers for their kind comments and valuable corrections to improve the manuscript. This study was supported by the Project VA042A10-2 from Junta de Castilla y León to C. Martínez-Ruiz, the “Programa I: Programa de financiación de grupos de investigación” from the Salamanca University to B. Fernández-Santos, and a FPU grant from Spanish Ministry of Education to P. Torroba (FPU 12/00125).

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Correspondence to Carolina Martínez-Ruiz.

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Responsible editor: Hailong Wang

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Alday, J.G., Zaldívar, P., Torroba-Balmori, P. et al. Natural forest expansion on reclaimed coal mines in Northern Spain: the role of native shrubs as suitable microsites. Environ Sci Pollut Res 23, 13606–13616 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-015-5681-2

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Keywords

  • Quercus petraea
  • Seedling recruitment
  • Survival
  • Growth
  • Shrub protection
  • Sub-Mediterranean environment