Slow lifelong growth predisposes Populus tremuloides trees to mortality.

Research paper by Kathryn B KB Ireland, Margaret M MM Moore, Peter Z PZ Fulé, Thomas J TJ Zegler, Robert E RE Keane

Indexed on: 13 May '14Published on: 13 May '14Published in: Oecologia


Widespread dieback of aspen forests, sometimes called sudden aspen decline, has been observed throughout much of western North America, with the highest mortality rates in the southwestern United States. Recent aspen mortality has been linked to drought stress and elevated temperatures characteristic of conditions expected under climate change, but the role of individual aspen tree growth patterns in contributing to recent tree mortality is less well known. We used tree-ring data to investigate the relationship between an individual aspen tree's lifetime growth patterns and mortality. Surviving aspen trees had consistently higher average growth rates for at least 100 years than dead trees. Contrary to observations from late successional species, slow initial growth rates were not associated with a longer lifespan in aspen. Aspen trees that died had slower lifetime growth and slower growth at various stages of their lives than those that survived. Differences in average diameter growth between live and dead trees were significant (α = 0.05) across all time periods tested. Our best logistical model of aspen mortality indicates that younger aspen trees with lower recent growth rates and higher frequencies of abrupt growth declines had an increased risk of mortality. Our findings highlight the need for species-specific mortality functions in forest succession models. Size-dependent mortality functions suitable for late successional species may not be appropriate for species with different life history strategies. For some early successional species, like aspen, slow growth at various stages of the tree's life is associated with increased mortality risk.