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Keywords:

  • forest decline;
  • neighborhood models;
  • Quercus suber;
  • regeneration dynamics;
  • soil-borne pathogens;
  • soil texture;
  • species coexistence

Summary

  • Soil-borne pathogens are a key component of the belowground community because of the significance of their ecological and socio-economic impacts. However, very little is known about the complexity of their distribution patterns in natural systems. Here, we explored the patterns, causes and ecological consequences of spatial variability in pathogen abundance in Mediterranean forests affected by oak decline.
  • We used spatially explicit neighborhood models to predict the abundance of soil-borne pathogen species (Phytophthora cinnamomi, Pythium spiculum and Pythium spp.) as a function of local abiotic conditions (soil texture) and the characteristics of the tree and shrub neighborhoods (species composition, size and health status). The implications of pathogen abundance for tree seedling performance were explored by conducting a sowing experiment in the same locations in which pathogen abundance was quantified.
  • Pathogen abundance in the forest soil was not randomly distributed, but exhibited spatially predictable patterns influenced by both abiotic and, particularly, biotic factors (tree and shrub species). Pathogen abundance reduced seedling emergence and survival, but not in all sites or tree species.
  • Our findings suggest that heterogeneous spatial patterns of pathogen abundance at fine spatial scale can be important for the dynamics and restoration of declining Mediterranean forests.