Wildfire Alters the Disturbance Impacts of an Emerging Forest Disease via Changes to Host Occurrence and Demographic Structure
- Anthropogenic activities have altered historical disturbance regimes, and understanding the mechanisms by which these shifting perturbations interact is essential to predicting where they may erode ecosystem resilience. Emerging infectious plant diseases, caused by human translocation of nonnative pathogens, can generate ecologically damaging forms of novel biotic disturbance. Further, abiotic disturbances, such as wildfire, may influence the severity and extent of disease-related perturbations via their effects on the occurrence of hosts, pathogens and microclimates; however, these interactions have rarely been examined.
- The disease ‘sudden oak death’ (SOD), associated with the introduced pathogen Phytophthora ramorum, causes acute, landscape-scale tree mortality in California's fire-prone coastal forests. Here, we examined interactions between wildfire and the biotic disturbance impacts of this emerging infectious disease. Leveraging long-term datasets that describe wildfire occurrence and P. ramorum dynamics across the Big Sur region, we modelled the influence of recent and historical fires on epidemiological parameters, including pathogen presence, infestation intensity, reinvasion, and host mortality.
- Past wildfire altered disease dynamics and reduced SOD-related mortality, indicating a negative interaction between these abiotic and biotic disturbances. Frequently burned forests were less likely to be invaded by P. ramorum, had lower incidence of host infection, and exhibited decreased disease-related biotic disturbance, which was associated with reduced occurrence and density of epidemiologically significant hosts. Following a recent wildfire, survival of mature bay laurel, a key sporulating host, was the primary driver of P. ramorum infestation and reinvasion, but younger, rapidly regenerating host vegetation capable of sporulation did not measurably influence disease dynamics. Notably, the effect of P. ramorum infection on host mortality was reduced in recently burned areas, indicating that the loss of tall, mature host canopies may temporarily dampen pathogen transmission and ‘release’ susceptible species from significant inoculum pressure.
- Synthesis. Cumulatively, our findings indicate that fire history has contributed to heterogeneous patterns of biotic disturbance and disease-related decline across this landscape, via changes to the both the occurrence of available hosts and the demography of epidemiologically important host populations. These results highlight that human-altered abiotic disturbances may play a foundational role in structuring infectious disease dynamics, contributing to future outbreak emergence and driving biotic disturbance regimes.
Simler-Williamson, Allison B.; Metz, Margaret R.; Frangioso, Kerri M.; and Rizzo, David M. (2021). "Wildfire Alters the Disturbance Impacts of an Emerging Forest Disease via Changes to Host Occurrence and Demographic Structure". Journal of Ecology, 109(2), 676-691. href="https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.13495"">https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.13495