Understory vegetation accounts for the majority of plant species diversity and serves as a driver of overstory succession and nutrient cycling in boreal forest ecosystems. However, investigations of the underlying assembly processes of understory vegetation associated with stand development following a wildfire disturbance are rare, particularly in Eurasian boreal forests. In this study, we measured the phylogenetic and functional diversity and trait dispersions of understory communities and tested how these patterns changed with stand age in the Great Xing'an Mountains of Northeastern China. Contrary to our expectation, we found that understory functional traits were phylogenetically convergent. We found that random patterns of phylogenetic, functional, and trait dispersions were dominant for most of our surveyed plots, indicating that stochastic processes may play a crucial role in the determination of understory community assembly. Yet, there was an evidence that understory community assembly was also determined by competitive exclusion and environmental filtering to a certain degree, which was demonstrated by the observed clustered phylogenetic and functional patterns in some plots. Our results showed that phylogenetic diversity significantly decreased, while functional diversity increased with stand age. The observed shift trends in phylogenetic and functional patterns between random to clustering along with stand age, which suggested that understory community assembly shifted from stochasticity to competitive exclusion and environmental filtering. Our study presented a difference to community assembly and species coexistence theories insisted solely on deterministic processes. These findings indicated that Eurasian boreal understory communities may be primarily regulated by stochastic processes, providing complementary evidence that stochastic processes are crucial in the determination of community assembly both in tropical and boreal forests.

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Published in Frontiers in Plant Science, v. 9, 1854, p. 1-12.

© 2018 Liu, Chen and Yang.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

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This study was financed by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2017YFA0604403), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31270511 & 41501200) and CAS Interdisciplinary Innovation Team.

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The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpls.2018.01854/full#supplementary-material