Drought-related tree death of savanna eucalypts: Species susceptibility, soil conditions and root architecture


  • Nomenclature: Because of the complex nomenclature of the taxa to be treated here vernacular names as elucidated in Table 1 will be used (see also Henderson 2002).

Corresponding author; E-mail rod.fensham@epa.qld.gov.au


Questions: For eucalypt savanna in northeast Australia subject to multi-year rainfall deficits this paper asks whether (1) dominant tree species (Ironbarks, Boxes) are more drought susceptible than the sub-dominant Bloodwoods; (2) whether soil moisture is beyond wilting point in surface soil layers but available at depth; (3) soil conditions (moisture availability and texture) are related to tree death during drought; (4) the root systems of the Boxes and Ironbarks are shallower than the Bloodwoods; and the survivors of drought within species have deeper root systems than those that died.

Location: Central Queensland, Australia.

Methods: Patterns of tree death between eucalypt species were compared from field data collected after drought. Soil conditions during drought were described and compared with patterns of tree death for the Ironbark Eucalyptus melanophloia. The basal area and orientation of coarse roots were measured on upturned trees after broad-scale tree clearing, and compared between species, and between live and dead trees with tree size as a covariate.

Results: Drought-induced tree death was higher for dominant Ironbark-Box than for sub-dominant Bloodwoods. During a moderate to severe drought in 2004, 41% of 100 cm deep subsoils had soil matric potential less than-5600 kPa. The drought hardy Bloodwoods had a greater root basal area and particularly so for vertical roots compared to the drought sensitive Ironbark-Box. Within species there was no significant difference in root basal area characteristics between trees that were recently killed by drought and those that remained relatively healthy. Surface soil moisture availability was lower where tree densities were high, and tree death increased as surface soil moisture became less available. Tree death was also greater as the clay content of sub-soils increased.

Discussion: The study suggests species with roots confined to upper soil layers will suffer severe water stress. The results strongly indicate that root architecture, and the way it facilitates water use during drought, is important for the relative dominance of the tree species. Patchiness in drought-induced tree death seems to be at least partially a product of heterogeneity in sub-soil conditions and competition for soil moisture.