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Recovery from Severe Mistletoe Infection After Heat- and Drought-Induced Mistletoe Death

Abstract

Mistletoes are emerging as important co-contributors to tree mortality across terrestrial ecosystems, particularly when infected trees are stressed by water limitations during drought. While the mechanistic effects of mistletoe infection on host physiology are reasonably well understood, quantifying the effects of mistletoe infection on stand productivity, canopy turnover and ecosystem structure remains challenging. Moreover, the potential devastating effect of mistletoe infection on host survival has distracted from the challenges that mistletoe populations are facing when increasing drought and heat stress threaten their survival in healthy populations. We coupled intensive observations of mistletoe population dynamics with measurements of host tree stem growth, canopy turnover and stand structure in a severely infected temperate eucalypt woodland to monitor how mistletoe infection alters aboveground biomass distribution and to assess ecosystem recovery from severe mistletoe infection during and after a three-year drought. We show that severe mistletoe infection reduces live standing biomass and canopy volume, with mistletoe leaves contributing up to 43% to total stand litter fall. We further identified that a mistletoe:host leaf area ratio above 60% significantly reduced basal area growth, which provides a threshold for productivity losses due to mistletoe infection in eucalypts. Yet, concurrent increases in basal area and the thickening of canopy volume indicate that host trees recover rapidly after the three-year drought combined with record summer heat nearly extinguished the mistletoe population. How common, or how widespread such dynamic changes in mistletoe population dynamics are within Australian or global ecosystems remains subject to further exploration.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Peter Mumford and Jason Middleton of the School of Aviation at UNSW Sydney for the provision of the airborne LiDAR data which appears in Figure 6. We further thank Craig McNamara for his assistance with the collection of the 2020 UAV-based LiDAR data, Norbert Klause, Charitha Gunasekara and Inna Ljungblom for their assistance with collecting monthly PAI images and sorting the litter fall data, and David Tissue and Victor Resco de Dios for their assistance with initial site establishment. HC, RHN and MMB acknowledge financial support from the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub. This study was supported by Western Sydney University and used research infrastructure provided to OzFlux and Ecosystem Processes by Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN), an Australian Government NCRIS-enabled project. The data from the TERN core hectare are available at the TERN data portal (https://portal.tern.org.au).

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Correspondence to Anne Griebel.

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AG designed the study with input from EP, MB and DM. DM acquired the LiDAR data in 2020 and processed the LiDAR data from all flights; RN and HC calculated the soil moisture and vapor pressure deficit anomalies. AG analyzed the data and drafted the manuscript, and all authors contributed to the final version.

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Griebel, A., Metzen, D., Pendall, E. et al. Recovery from Severe Mistletoe Infection After Heat- and Drought-Induced Mistletoe Death. Ecosystems (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-021-00635-7

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Keywords

  • mistletoe
  • tree mortality
  • ecosystem recovery
  • drought
  • LiDAR
  • LAI