U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Drought-Pathogen Interactions and Oak Tree Mortality
Published: January 05, 2018
Posted: January 23, 2018

Interactions between drought and pathogens are important factors driving “pulses” of oak tree mortality.

The Science
Drought-stress disrupts tree function and growth, and is an important factor that can lead to tree mortality. When under stress and weakened, trees are susceptible to infection by opportunistic pathogens that are able to further disrupt tree function. In the Ozark Border Region of central Missouri, there was a severe drought in 2012 that was followed by significant mortality of white oaks (Quercus alba L.; 10.0% of live stems) and black oaks (Q. velutina Lam.; 26.5% of live stems) in the year after. This was surprising because oaks are comparatively drought-tolerant—and implied that some other factor may be at play. A synthesis of forest inventory data, ecosystem fluxes (with supporting biological observations), tree-ring analyses, and documentation of a pathogen (Biscogniauxia spp., formerly hypoxylon) infection, was therefore completed to better understand whether drought-pathogen interactions are important aspects of tree mortality and stand dynamics in this region.

The Impact
Large-scale oak mortality events have been documented in the forest-grasslands transition zone of the Central United States following intense drought conditions. Rising temperatures and changing patterns of precipitation are expected to intensify droughts and make them more lethal. It is therefore critical to better understand how droughts affect tree growth and mortality. The interactions between drought and pathogens have been understudied, but are crucial towards more fully understanding how tree mortality rates may change under different environmental conditions. This research points to the significance of event-based oak mortality and that drought-Biscogniauxia interactions are important in shaping oak stand dynamics in this region and underscores the pressing need for more in-depth studies focused on drought-pathogen interactions.

Stand dynamics were consistent with expected patterns of decreasing tree density but increasing basal area. Basal area growth outpaced mortality implying a net accumulation of live biomass, which was supported by eddy covariance ecosystem carbon flux observations. There was a threshold response in white and black oak trees to water stress in the previous year giving rise to significantly elevated mortality in the year after. Individual white and black oaks that died in 2013 displayed historically lower growth with the majority of dead trees exhibiting Biscogniauxia cankers. Taken together, our synthesis points to the importance of drought-pathogens being important drivers of oak mortality “pulses” and thus stand dynamics in these forests.

PI Contacts
Jeff Wood
Assistant Research Professor
University of Missouri, MO
woodjd@missouri.edu / 1-573-882-3295

Lianhong Gu
Distinguished Scientist
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN
lianhong-gu@ornl.gov / 1-865-241-5925 (PI).

Contacts (BER PM)
Daniel Stover, SC-23.1, Daniel.Stover@science.doe.gov (301-903-0289) (BER PM)

The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science Office of Biological and Environmental Research. The U. S. Department of Agriculture — National Institute of Food and Agriculture, McIntire-Stennis funds

Wood, J., B.O. Knapp, R-M. Muzika, M.C. Stambaugh, and L. Gu. “The importance of drought-pathogen interactions in driving oak mortality events in the Ozark Border Region.” Environmental Research Letters, 13: 015004 (2018). [DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa94fa]

Related Links
(Reference link)

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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