Mortality and community changes drive sudden oak death impacts on litterfall and soil nitrogen cycling

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Summary

  • Few studies have quantified pathogen impacts to ecosystem processes, despite the fact that pathogens cause or contribute to regional-scale tree mortality.
  • We measured litterfall mass, litterfall chemistry, and soil nitrogen (N) cycling associated with multiple hosts along a gradient of mortality caused by Phytophthora ramorum, the cause of sudden oak death.
  • In redwood forests, the epidemiological and ecological characteristics of the major overstory species determine disease patterns and the magnitude and nature of ecosystem change. Bay laurel (Umbellularia californica) has high litterfall N (0.992%), greater soil extractable NO3–N, and transmits infection without suffering mortality. Tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) has moderate litterfall N (0.723%) and transmits infection while suffering extensive mortality that leads to higher extractable soil NO3–N. Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) has relatively low litterfall N (0.519%), does not suffer mortality or transmit the pathogen, but dominates forest biomass.
  • The strongest impact of pathogen-caused mortality was the potential shift in species composition, which will alter litterfall chemistry, patterns and dynamics of litterfall mass, and increase soil NO3–N availability. Patterns of P. ramorum spread and consequent mortality are closely associated with bay laurel abundances, suggesting this species will drive both disease emergence and subsequent ecosystem function.

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