Anthropogenic disturbance impacts stand structure and susceptibility of an iconic tree species to an endemic canker pathogen

26 Jun 2018

Forest ecosystems characterised by higher tree species diversity have been linked to a reduced susceptibility to pathogens. Conversely, endemic pathogens contribute to forest ecosystem dynamics and process. In the face of global change, however, negative impacts arising from more frequent and severe forest disturbances are increasingly observed. An increase in the susceptibility of Corymbia calophylla, a keystone tree species of southwest Western Australia, to cankers caused by the endemic fungus Quambalaria coyrecup, has emerged in recent decades. Landscape scale assessment of disease incidence has implicated the predisposing role of anthropogenic disturbance, indicating a need for this to be examined at a finer resolution. We assessed the effects of anthropogenic disturbance on the incidence of canker disease caused by Q. coyrecup across a disturbance gradient at 17 forest sites. In addition, we determined the impact of disturbance on tree community composition and stand level structural traits including stem density and stand basal area, and investigated the role of these factors as drivers of canker presence. Canker incidence and associated mortality of C. calophylla increased with anthropogenic disturbance. Disturbed edges showed significantly different overstorey composition from the forest transects. Total stem density increased with increasing disturbance, and disturbed edges contained greater numbers of C. calophylla stems compared to forest transects. There was a much increased basal area of C. calophylla on disturbed edges. Regardless of transect position, an increased incidence of canker resulted on sites with increased C. calophylla basal area. Lastly, increased tree species diversity (as measured by species richness) was associated with decreased canker incidence. We demonstrate that anthropogenic disturbance has altered stand structure and led to an increased susceptibility of C. calophylla to Q. coyrecup, resulting in high disease incidence and mortality of trees on disturbed road edges. Our results highlight the complexity of addressing tree health issues in the presence of multiple global change factors.