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Dissecting the Effects of Diameter on Wood Decay Emphasizes the Importance of Cross-Stem Conductivity in Fraxinus americana

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Pest outbreaks are driving tree dieback and major influxes of deadwood into forest ecosystems. Understanding how pulses of deadwood impact the climate system requires understanding which factors influence greenhouse gas production during wood decay. Recent analyses identify stem diameter as an important control, but report effects that vary in magnitude and direction. This complexity may reflect interacting effects of soil contact, geometry and variable tissue properties. To dissect these effects, we implemented a three-way factorial experiment in Fraxinus americana, (white ash), an iconic North American species threatened by an invasive beetle. Soil contact accelerated decay rates by an order of magnitude with an effect that varied with stem diameter, not bark presence. After experimentally controlling surface area-to-volume ratio, half-buried wide stems decayed more slowly than half-buried narrow stems but more quickly than the aggregate decay rate of buried and suspended stems. These results closely matched variation in moisture content within and among samples, suggesting that limited vertical conduction of soil moisture through deadwood mediates the effect of stem diameter on wood decay. Soil contact also influenced greenhouse gas concentrations reinforcing recent evidence that deadwood acts as a source for CO2 and CH4 while acting as a sink for N2O. Our results suggest that managing tree species affected by pest outbreaks, including F. americana, for biomass salvage and greenhouse gas mitigation requires understanding traits that mediate wood permeability and diffusivity to soil moisture and greenhouse gases.

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The authors thank the staff of Tyson Research Center and Washington University in St. Louis for access to the site and for logistical support. In particular, we thank T. Mohrman for his help in safely harvesting the large tree. A. Miller helped with initial deployment. S. Hobbie and two anonymous reviewers provided constructive comments that helped improve an earlier draft of this manuscript. Funding was provided by NSF Grant DEB 1302797 to AEZ and NSF Grant DGE 1405135 to KRC.

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Correspondence to Brad Oberle.

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Authors’ contributions

BO, KD, MLW and AEZ designed the study. BO, KRC, KD, EJH, MLW and DFY performed research. BO analyzed data. KRC contributed new methods. BO wrote the paper. All authors commented on drafts.

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FIGURE S1: Experimental set-up, illustrating wide and narrow diameter samples, both with and without bark in both suspended and half-buried vertical positions. (JPG 2296 kb)


FIGURE S2: Principal components analyses show different patterns of variation in internal gas concentrations in suspended (A) compared to buried (B) Fraxinus stem segments. (PDF 6 kb)

TABLE S1: Model selection statistics for estimating initial moisture content. (XLSX 9 kb)

TABLE S2: Summary of hypotheses, predictions and statistical tests. (DOCX 18 kb)

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Oberle, B., Covey, K.R., Dunham, K.M. et al. Dissecting the Effects of Diameter on Wood Decay Emphasizes the Importance of Cross-Stem Conductivity in Fraxinus americana . Ecosystems 21, 85–97 (2018).

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