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Why do trees die? Characterizing the drivers of background tree mortality

October 3, 2016

The drivers of background tree mortality rates—the typical low rates of tree mortality found in forests in the absence of acute stresses like drought—are central to our understanding of forest dynamics, the effects of ongoing environmental changes on forests, and the causes and consequences of geographical gradients in the nature and strength of biotic interactions. To shed light on factors contributing to background tree mortality, we analyzed detailed pathological data from 200,668 tree-years of observation and 3,729 individual tree deaths, recorded over a 13-yr period in a network of old-growth forest plots in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. We found that: (1) Biotic mortality factors (mostly insects and pathogens) dominated (58%), particularly in larger trees (86%). Bark beetles were the most prevalent (40%), even though there were no outbreaks during the study period; in contrast, the contribution of defoliators was negligible. (2) Relative occurrences of broad classes of mortality factors (biotic, 58%; suppression, 51%; and mechanical, 25%) are similar among tree taxa, but may vary with tree size and growth rate. (3) We found little evidence of distinct groups of mortality factors that predictably occur together on trees. Our results have at least three sets of implications. First, rather than being driven by abiotic factors such as lightning or windstorms, the “ambient” or “random” background mortality that many forest models presume to be independent of tree growth rate is instead dominated by biotic agents of tree mortality, with potentially critical implications for forecasting future mortality. Mechanistic models of background mortality, even for healthy, rapidly growing trees, must therefore include the insects and pathogens that kill trees. Second, the biotic agents of tree mortality, instead of occurring in a few predictable combinations, may generally act opportunistically and with a relatively large degree of independence from one another. Finally, beyond the current emphasis on folivory and leaf defenses, studies of broad-scale gradients in the nature and strength of biotic interactions should also include biotic attacks on, and defenses of, tree stems and roots.