Forest Decline after a 15-Year “Perfect Storm” of Invasion by Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, Drought, and Hurricanes

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Biological Invasions





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Invasions by introduced pests can interact with other disturbances to alter forests and their functions, particularly when a dominant tree species declines. To identify changes after invasion by the insect hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae; HWA), coinciding with severe droughts and hurricanes, this study compared tree species composition of eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) forests on 11 plots before (2001) and 15 years after (2016) invasion in the southern Appalachian Mountains, USA. Losses of hemlock trees after HWA invasion were among the highest reported, with a 90% decline in density, 86% decline in basal area, and 100% mortality for individuals ≥ 60 cm in diameter. In contrast to predictions of theoretical models, deciduous tree density declined after HWA invasion, while basal area changed little, at least during the initial 15 years after invasion. Overall, forest density declined by 58%, basal area by 25%, and tree species richness by 8%. Factors additional to HWA likely exacerbating forest decline included: droughts before (1999–2001) and after HWA invasion (2006–2008); tree uprooting from hurricane-stimulated winds in 2004; pest-related declines of deciduous tree species otherwise likely benefitting from hemlock’s demise; death of deciduous trees when large hemlocks fell; and competition from aggressive understory plants including doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana), rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), and Rubus spp. Models of forest change and ecosystem function should not assume that deciduous trees always increase during the first decades after HWA invasion.


Deciduous forest; Introduced forest pest; Jocassee Gorges; Rhododendron; Southern Appalachian Mountains; Tsuga canadensis


Life Sciences

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