Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Jonathan Phillips


Previous research in the Ouachita Mountains, Arkansas suggests that, on relatively thin soils overlying bedrock, individual trees locally thicken the regolith by root penetration into bedrock. However, that work was conducted mainly in areas of strongly dipping and contorted rock, where joints and bedding planes susceptible to root penetration are more common and accessible. This project extended this concept to the Cumberland Plateau, Kentucky, with flat, level-bedded sedimentary rocks. Spatial variability of soil thickness was quantified at three nested spatial scales, and statistical relationships with other potential influences of thickness were examined. In addition, soil depth beneath trees was compared to that of non-tree sites by measuring depth to bedrock of stumps and immediately adjacent sites.

While soil thickness beneath stumps was greater in the Ouachita Mountains compared to the Kentucky sites, there were no statistically significant differences in the difference between stump and adjacent sites between the two regions. In both regions, however, soils beneath stumps are significantly deeper than adjacent soils. This suggests the local deepening effects of trees occur in flat-bedded as well as steeply dipping lithologies. Regression results at the Cumberland Plateau sites showed no statistically significant relationship between soil depth and geomorphic or stand-level ecological variables, consistent with a major role for individual tree effects. Nested analysis of variance between 10 ha stands, 1.0 ha plots, and 0.1 ha subplots indicates that about 67 percent of total depth variance occurs at, or below, the subplot level of organization. This highly localized variability is consistent with, and most plausibly explained by, individual tree effects.

The effects of biomechanical weathering by trees are not limited to areas with strongly dipping and contorted bedrock. Variability of soil depth in the Cumberland Plateau is likely influenced by positive feedbacks from tree root growth, that these interactions occur over multiple generations of growth, and that the effects of trees are the dominant control of local soil thickness. Since lateral lithological variation was minimal, this study also provides evidence that the positive feedback from biomechanical weathering by trees leads to divergent development of soil thickness.