Forest dynamics following eastern hemlock mortality in the southern Appalachians
Understanding changes in community composition caused by invasive species is critical for predicting effects on ecosystem function, particularly when the invasive threatens a foundation species. Here we focus on dynamics of forest structure, composition and microclimate, and how these interact in southern Appalachian riparian forests following invasion by hemlock woolly adelgid, HWA, Adelges tsugae. We measured and quantified changes in microclimate; canopy mortality; canopy and shrub growth; understory species composition; and the cover and diversity in riparian forests dominated by eastern hemlock Tsuga canadensis over a period of seven years. Treatments manipulated hemlock mortality either through invasion (HWA infested stands) or girdling (GDL) hemlock trees. Mortality was rapid, with 50% hemlock tree mortality occurring after six years of invasion, in contrast to more than 50% mortality in two years following girdling. Although 50% of hemlock trees were still alive five years after infestation, leaf area lost was similar to that of girdled trees. As such, overall responses over time (changes in light transmittance, growth, soil moisture) were identical to girdled stands with 100% mortality. Our results showed different growth responses of the canopy species, shrubs and ground layer, with the latter being substantially influenced by presence of the evergreen shrub, rhododendron Rhododendron maximum. Although ground layer richness in the infested and girdled stands increased by threefold, they did not approach levels recorded in hardwood forests without rhododendron. Increased growth of co-occurring canopy trees occurred in the first few years following hemlock decline, with similar responses in both treatments. In contrast, growth of rhododendron continued to increase over time. By the end of the study it had a 2.6-fold higher growth rate than expected, likely taking advantage of increased light available during leaf-off periods of the deciduous species. Increased growth and dominance of rhododendron may be a major determinant of future responses in southern Appalachian ecosystems; however, our results suggest hemlock will be replaced by a mix of Acer, Betula, Fagus and Quercus canopy genera where establishment is not limited by rhododendron.