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Synergistic abiotic and biotic stressors explain widespread decline of Pinus pinaster in a mixed forest

Guillermo Gea-Izquierdo, Macarena Férriz, Sara García-Garrido, Olga Aguín, Margarita Elvira-Recuenco, Laura Hernandez-Escribano, Dario Martin-Benito, Rosa Raposo
Science of the total environment 2019 v.685 pp. 963-975
Heterobasidion, Phytophthora, Pinus pinaster, Viscum album, biotic factors, dead wood, defoliation, dominant species, drought, drought tolerance, environmental factors, forest decline, fungi, global change, health status, insect infestations, land use, leaf area, mixed forests, mortality, pathogens, stand composition, tree mortality, trees, water stress
Global change potentially increases forest vulnerability. Different abiotic and biotic factors may interact to cause forest decline and accelerated tree mortality. We studied a mixed Mediterranean continental forest where Pinus pinaster Ait. (maritime pine) shows widespread decline to analyse the role of different abiotic and biotic factors on health status and growth dynamics both at the individual and plot levels. We also analysed stand composition and regeneration of tree species to check whether there is a change in species dominance. Fungal pathogens were seldom present and we detected no pervasive fungi or insect infestation and no presence of pathogens like Heterobasidion or Phytophthora. Infection of hemiparasite plants like Viscum album L. (mistletoe) can reduce leaf area and its abundance is generally considered an expression of host decline. Yet, the existence among declining trees of high defoliation levels without mistletoe, but not vice versa, suggests that defoliation in response to some abiotic stressor could be a predisposing factor preceding mistletoe infection. Compared to healthy trees, declining and dead trees exhibited higher defoliation rates, smaller needles and lower recent growth with steeper negative trends. Dead and declining trees showed similar negative growth trends since the early 1990s droughts, which we interpreted as early warning signals anticipating mortality of currently declining trees in the near future. Mortality of maritime pine extending across all size classes, the lower presence of this species in the smallest size classes and its lack of regeneration suggest it is potentially losing its current dominance and being replaced by other co-occurring, more drought-tolerant species. Our results unravelled that maritime pine decline seems to be mainly driven by a combination of predisposing and inciting abiotic factors (microenvironment and drought stress) and biotic factors (mistletoe). The absence of widespread fungal pathogens suggests that they may have a minor role on pine decline acting only eventually as contributing factors. Although there could be other interrelations among factors or other biotic agents at play, our results strongly suggest that water stress plays a major role in the decline process of the dominant species on an ecosystem with strong land-use legacies.