Temporal Patterns of Oak Mortality in a Southern Appalachian Forest (1991-2006).
The sustainability of eastern oak-dominated forests is threatened by high oak mortality rates and widespread oak regeneration failure, and presents a challenge to natural area managers. We tracked the rate and cause of mortality of 287 mature oak trees of five species for 15 years to determine the temporal patterns and sources of mortality. We observed a 15.3% total mortality rate during the study period. Mortality was due to oak decline (7.3% of trees) and high-intensity wind events (6.6% of trees). Decline-related mortality was gradual, averaging 0.5% annually. Windthrow was episodic, occurring during hurricane-related weather events in 1995 and 2004. Within species, total mortality was disproportionately high for scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea Muenchh) (41.2%) compared to other species in the red oak group (13.8% for northern red oak (Q. rubra L.); 12.5% for black oak (Q. velutina Lam.)) or the white oak group (10.4% for white oak (Q. alba L.); 5.7% for chestnut oak (Q. prinus L.)). Decline-related mortality was highest for scarlet oak (15.7%) followed by black oak (8.3%), white oak (7.5%), northern red oak (6.9%), and chestnut oak (2.3%). Within the red oak group, the average age of decline-affected and surviving trees did not differ, but average dbh of decline-affected trees was smaller. Decline-affected trees in the white oak group were on average older, but average dbh did not differ from surviving trees. Wind-related mortality also was higher for scarlet oak (21.6%) than for northern red oak (5.2%), black oak (4.2%), white oak (3.0%) or chestnut oak (2.3%). Windthrown red oaks were smaller than survivors, but windthrown trees in the white oak group did not differ in size from survivors.Average age did not differ between windthrown and surviving trees for either group. Oak mortality rates observed in this study, coupled with oak regeneration failure, could result in a substantial reduction in the proportion of mature canopy oaks and change the relative abundance of oak species in southern Appalachian forests over the long-term.