Listen to the trees: a detective work on the origin of invasive species

An attempt to explore the history of the spread of four non-indigenous invasive tree species in one of the most important Hungarian forest-steppe forests of high conservation value.

Guest blog post by Arnold Erdélyi, Judit Hartdégen, Ákos Malatinszky, and Csaba Vadász

Today, almost everyone is familiar with the term “biological invasion”. Countless studies have been carried out to describe the various processes, and explore the cause and effect, and several methods have been developed in order to control certain invasive species. However, one of the biggest puzzles is always the question of how it all happened. It is not always easy to answer, and, in general, the smaller the area, the more difficult or even impossible it is to answer. In the course of our work, we attempted to explore the history of the spread of four, non-indigenous invasive tree species in one of the most important Hungarian forest-steppe forests of high conservation value, the Peszér Forest (approximately 1000 ha). Last week, we published our study in the journal One Ecosystem.

The Far Eastern tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), as well as the North American black cherry (Prunus serotina), the box elder (Acer negundo) and the common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) are among the worst invasive plant species in Hungary. They are also responsible for serious conservation and economic problems in the Peszér Forest.

Invasion of tree of heaven (top left) and common hackberry (top right) in poplar stands, carpet of seedlings of black cherry (bottom left), and monodominant stand of box elder, regrown from stump after cutting (bottom right)

Historical reconstructions of the spread of invasive species are most often based on only one, or sometimes a few aspects. We used six approaches simultaneously:

  • we reviewed the published and grey literature,
  • extracted tree species data from the National Forest Database since 1958,
  • conducted a field survey with full spatial coverage (16,000 survey units (25×25 m quadrats)) – instead of sampling,
  • recorded all the largest (and presumably the oldest) individuals for annual ring counts,
  • performed hotspot analyses on the field data
  • collected local knowledge.
Cutting down the oldest common hackberry trees in order to count the annual rings from trunk discs

Our results show that each approach provided some new information, and without any of them the story revealed would have been much shorter and more uncertain. We have also highlighted that at the local level, the use of one or two aspects can be not only inadequate but also misleading.

From the literature it was possible to determine the exact place and date of the first occurrence of the tree of heaven and the black cherry. However, in the case of black cherry, for example, it was only possible to piece together the circumstances of the first plantings by combining three different sources. The first occurrences of box elder were found in forestry data. Finally, in the case of the common hackberry, searching for old individuals and determining their age gave the best results.

Common hackberry in the Peszér forest according to the recent forestry data (2016) and the field survey (2017-2019). The difference is clear: in the official forestry database, the tree species is underrepresented several times over

A well-explored story of a biological invasion can go a long way in making more and more people understand that controlling these non-indigenous species can only be beneficial. On the other hand, it can also help to strengthen conservation efforts, for example by increasing the volunteer workforce, which can be a major factor in the reduction of certain species. We hope that our work and the approaches we have taken will serve as a good model for exploring other invasion stories around the world.

Winter snapshot from the Peszér Forest, a diverse forest edge habitat along an inner road.

Research article:

Erdélyi A, Hartdégen J, Malatinszky Á, Vadász C (2023) Historical reconstruction of the invasions of four non-native tree species at local scale: a detective work on Ailanthus altissima, Celtis occidentalis, Prunus serotina and Acer negundo. One Ecosystem 8: e108683.

More and more emerging diseases threaten trees around the world

A new study published in NeoBiota reveals a troubling trend: the rapid emergence of new diseases, doubling approximately every 11 years, and affecting a wide range of tree species worldwide.

Diseases are among the major causes of tree mortality in both forests and urban areas. New diseases are continually being introduced, and pathogens are continually jumping to new hosts, threatening more and more tree species. When exposed to novel hosts, emerging diseases can cause mortality previously unseen in the native range.

Tar spot on maple in Frostburg, MD, USA. Photo by Andrew V. Gougherty

Although not all diseases will outright kill their hosts, some can dramatically affect host populations. In the 20th century, chestnut blight, perhaps the most well-known tree disease in North America, effectively eliminated chestnut as an overstory tree in its native range in the Appalachian Mountains. More recently, we’ve seen sudden oak death in California, ash dieback in Europe, and butternut canker in the eastern US, each having the potential to eliminate host tree populations and alter the ecosystems where they occur.

“The continued emergence and accumulation of new diseases increases the likelihood of a particularly detrimental one emerging, and harming host tree populations,” says Dr Andrew Gougherty, research landscape ecologist at the USDA Forest Service. Recently, he has been exploring where tree diseases have accumulated fastest, and which trees are most impacted by new diseases. This information could help researchers and land managers better predict where new diseases may be most likely to emerge.

Powdery mildew on maple in Vancouver, BC, CAN. Photo by Andrew V. Gougherty

The study, recently published in the open-access journal NeoBiota, analyzes over 900 new disease reports on 284 tree species in 88 countries and quantified how emerging infectious diseases have accumulated geographically and on different hosts. “The ‘big data’ approach used in this study helps to characterise the growing threat posed by emergent infectious diseases and how this threat is unequally distributed regionally and by host species,” the author writes.

Dr Gougherty found that globally, the number of emerged diseases has accumulated rapidly over the past two decades. “The accumulation is apparent both where tree species are native and where they are not native, and the number of new disease emergences globally were found to double every ~11 years,” he explains. Among the trees he assessed, pines accumulated the most new diseases, followed by oaks and eucalypts. This, he explains, is likely due to their wide native distribution in the Northern Hemisphere, and the planting of pine forests throughout the globe. Europe, in aggregate, had the greatest total accumulation of new diseases, but North America and Asia were close behind.

Powdery mildew on maple in Vancouver, BC, CAN. Photo by Andrew V. Gougherty

In addition, he found more emerging tree diseases in areas where tree species were native versus non-native, with the exception of Latin America and the Caribbean, likely because most of the trees he assessed were not native to this region.

“Unfortunately, there is little evidence of saturation in emergent tree disease accumulation. Global trends show little sign of slowing, suggesting the impact of newly emerged diseases is likely to continue to compound and threaten tree populations globally and into the future,” warns Dr Gougherty. “Climate change is likely also playing a role, both by creating more favourable conditions for pathogens and by stressing host plants.”

Research article:

Gougherty AV (2023) Emerging tree diseases are accumulating rapidly in the native and non-native ranges of Holarctic trees. NeoBiota 87: 143-160.

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The “Sooty Bark Disease”, harmful for maples and humans, can be monitored by pollen sampling stations

The hyper-allergenic spores of the fungus causing Sooty bark disease in maples were detected in six European countries.

Sycamore maples destroyed by the Sooty bark disease. Photo by Dr Miloň Dvořák

Especially after the last few COVID-affected years, nobody doubts that emerging infectious diseases can threaten the whole world. But humans are not the only ones at risk! With intensive global trade, many tree parasites are accidently introduced to Europe in packaging or directly on goods. Traveling in the wood, on plants or in the soil of their pots, they can remain undetected for a long time.

“Forms of life of parasitic fungi are extremely diverse and very often practically invisible,” says Dr Miloň Dvořák of the Department of Forest Protection and Wildlife Management at Mendel University in Brno, Czechia. “An infected tree may look completely healthy for some time, which complicates the control of the disease enormously. It reminds me of the ancient Trojan Horse, where European trees are so surprised, defenceless, and later defeated, like the Trojan warriors.”

How can an infected tree look healthy and then suddenly get sick? “Like in the human body, in trees too, the trigger can be stress,” explains Dr Dvořák. The tolerance of trees to a pathogenic fungus turns lower under the conditions of changing climate and so the tree starts to die of the disease.

One typical example of such a disease is the Sooty Bark Disease (SBD) on maples, caused by a microscopic fungus called Cryptostroma corticale. “The fungus was probably introduced to Europe during the Second World War and for the rest of the 20th century we did not hear much about it,” says Dr Dvořák.  

Sooty Bark Disease (Cryptostroma corticale) on Sycamore. Photo by gailhampshire used under a CC BY 2.0 license

The situation has changed and over the last twenty years the fungus has been reported more and more often. After dry and hot periods, the trees start to die of the infection, which is accompanied by the creation of brown-black masses of “soot” under the peeling bark of the maples.

The “soot” is in fact spores, which help the fungus spread and infect other trees. It is harmful for wounded trees, but it can also cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis in humans.

So, the species became a target for a group of phytopathologists gathered by an European HORIZON 2020 project entitled “Holistic management for emerging forest pests and diseases (HOMED)”. Scientists from six countries (Czechia, France, Italy, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland), including Dr Dvořák, decided to develop a precise, DNA based (real-time PCR) diagnostic method to detect and monitor the pathogen in air samples. They published their method, the outcomes of its use, and their new findings about SBD epidemiology in the open-access journal NeoBiota.

Volumetric air sampler installed in Brno, Czech Republic, sampling pollen for allergen forecast. Photo by Aneta Lukačevičová

How to look for DNA in air samples? Simple devices called volumetric air samplers can suck the air against a piece of sticky tape, where every particle gets stuck and can be analyzed. “These devices are not really cheap, moreover, they demand regular maintenance,” explains Dr Dvořák. “But, actually, they are in common and regular use in the whole of Europe – remember the weather forecast, particularly that part about the “pollen report” for allergic people. This forecast is based on data of more than 600 stations united by the European Aeroallergen Network (EAN). Every station permanently maintains one volumetric air sampler and keeps an archive of the samples.”

The HOMED team got in contact with their national EAN collaborators and processed their samples with molecular techniques (real-time PCR).

Thanks to this sensitive detection method, the survey among samples was very successful. The “sooty” fungus was found in air samples from countries where the disease has been reported, and, in a more detailed study in France, the pathogen was found in the air 310km from currently diseased trees! This result suggests that the fungus can disperse long distances by wind.

Black stromata – source of billions of hyper-allergenic spores. Photo by Dr Miloň Dvořák

“Our results show that the SBD disease is at an exponentially increasing phase in France and Switzerland with an increase in the magnitude of the number of disease cases that peaks following a marked water deficit,” the researchers write in their study. They hope that early aerial detection of C. corticale in disease-free countries could help implement more efficient measures for SBD detection and eradication in the field.

“This European experiment fully confirmed the potential of this approach to monitor the pathogen’s outbreaks in early stages of its spread,” concludes Dr Dvořák. 

Research article:

Muller E, Dvořák M, Marçais B, Caeiro E, Clot B, Desprez-Loustau M-L, Gedda B, Lundén K, Migliorini D, Oliver G, Ramos AP, Rigling D, Rybníček O, Santini A, Schneider S, Stenlid J, Tedeschini E, Aguayo J, Gomez-Gallego M (2023) Conditions of emergence of the Sooty Bark Disease and aerobiology of Cryptostroma corticale in Europe. In: Jactel H, Orazio C, Robinet C, Douma JC, Santini A, Battisti A, Branco M, Seehausen L, Kenis M (Eds) Conceptual and technical innovations to better manage invasions of alien pests and pathogens in forests. NeoBiota 84: 319-347.

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How non-native tree species affect biodiversity

Non-native forest tree species can reduce native species diversity if they are planted in uniform stands, finds an international review study.

Non-native forest tree species can reduce native species diversity if they are planted in uniform stands. In contrast, the effects of introduced species on soil properties are small. This was found by an international review study with the participation of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL.

Curse or blessing? Opinions are divided on non-native tree species. In addition to native species, many foresters also plant non-native species that can withstand the increasing summer drought. In various parts of Europe, the latter are already important suppliers of timber. However, conservationists fear ecological damage, for example if native species are displaced or tree pathogens and insect pests are introduced.

In Switzerland, Douglas fir is partly used for afforestation. However, large pure stands, such as those found in Germany, are prohibited there. Photo by Thomas Reich

Now a team of European researchers, led by Thomas Wohlgemuth of WSL, has looked at the state of knowledge on the ecological consequences of alien tree species in Europe. They analysed the results of 103 studies on seven such species. All of these studies had investigated how stands dominated by non-native tree species affected biodiversity or soil condition under the trees compared to stands of native tree species. The organisms studied included plants, mosses, microorganisms and insects from the forest floor to the treetops.

Of the seven alien species studied, only the Douglas fir is currently planted in larger numbers in the Swiss forests. While foresters used to value its fast, straight growth and its versatile wood, today they appreciate its higher drought tolerance compared to spruce. Other species are problematic because they can spread uncontrollably. The North American Robinia, for example, is invasive and can displace native species. It was already introduced in Europe 400 years ago and used in Switzerland, among other things, to stabilise soils.

Robinia can spread rapidly and form stands as here in Valais. Photo by Thomas Reich

Negative effects on biodiversity predominate

Across the 103 studies, the consequences of non-native species for biodiversity were negative. Comparisons from 20 studies show, for example, that on average fewer insect species live on and in Douglas fir than in spruce or beech stands. Robinia also reduces the diversity of insects, eucalyptus that of birds. This is hardly surprising, says Wohlgemuth, head of the WSL Forest Dynamics Research Unit. Because: “These results apply to comparisons between pure stands.” In continuous, uniform plantations, many alien species clearly have worse impacts than native species.

Proportion of cases with increasing (green), decreasing (red) or non-significant (grey) effects of tree species non-native to Europe on diversity attributes (abundance, species richness or diversity) of different taxonomic groups in comparison to native vegetation. Numbers of cases are shown next to the NNTs names, below the diversity attributes and above the bars.

But alien species do not only have negative impacts. Most of them do not affect soil properties. The easily degradable needles of Douglas firs can even make more nutrients available than the poorly degradable spruce needles. “When it comes only to soil properties, the Douglas fir has no negative impact,” Wohlgemuth says. In general, an equal number of studies found positive and negative effects of the seven non-native species on the soil.

Douglas firs are attractive for forestry because of their fast growth, good wood properties and – in regard to climate change – their drought resistance. Photo by Thomas Reich

Furthermore, it makes a difference whether the alien species are more closely or more distantly related to European tree species. “Tree species without closer relatives, such as eucalyptus and acacia from Australia, reduce species diversity more strongly across all studies than closely related species, such as Douglas fir and wild black cherry from North America,” adds Martin Gossner, head of the WSL Forest Entomology Group and second author of the study.

A Douglas fir. Photo by Neptuul under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license

It all depends on the management

Management has a significant influence on whether Douglas fir or other tree species are good or bad for a forest overall. Uniform and dense Douglas fir stands are unsuitable habitats for many organisms. However, the same is true for spruces, which have been planted extensively for timber production in lowland areas of Central Europe over the last 100 years. On the other hand, Douglas firs in stands of native forest trees, individually or in small groups, would hardly disturb the ecosystem, Wohlgemuth says: “We conclude that the impact on native biodiversity is low with mixed-in Douglas firs.”

Should foresters plant non-native tree species or not? Despite certain negative aspects, Wohlgemuth does not recommend total renunciation. “Particularly in the case of Douglas fir, the facts show that moderate admixture in stands has little impact on native biodiversity, while at the same time preserving ecosystem services such as the production of construction timber. This is especially true when other, less drought-resistant conifers are increasingly lacking with regard to unchecked climate change.”

Research article:

Wohlgemuth T, Gossner MM, Campagnaro T, Marchante H, van Loo M, Vacchiano G, Castro-Díez P, Dobrowolska D, Gazda A, Keren S, Keserű Z, Koprowski M, La Porta N, Marozas V, Nygaard PH, Podrázský V, Puchałka R, Reisman-Berman O, Straigytė L, Ylioja T, Pötzelsberger E, Silva JS (2022) Impact of non-native tree species in Europe on soil properties and biodiversity: a review. NeoBiota 78: 45-69.

Web news piece originally published by the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL. Republished with permission.

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