AbstractAims Oak decline is a complex phenomenon, characterized by symptoms of canopy transparency, bark cracks and root biomass reduction. Root health status is one of the first stress indicators, and root turnover is a key process in plant adaptation to unfavourable conditions. In this study, the combined effects of decline and thinning were evaluated on fine root dynamics in an oak forest adjoining the Italian Pre-Alps by comparison of acute declining trees with non-declining trees, both with and without thinning treatment of surrounding trees.Methods Dynamics of volumetric root length density (RLDV) and tip density (RTDV), root tip density per unit length of root (RTDL), diameter, branching index (BI) and mycorrhizal colonization were monitored by soil coring over 2 years as possible descriptors of decline.Key Results At the beginning of the experiment, the relationship between canopy transparency and root status was weak, declining trees having slightly lower RLDV (–20 %) and RTDV (–11 %). After a 1 year lag, during which the parameters were almost unaffected, BI and RLDV, together with tip density, tip vitality and mycorrhizal colonization, became the descriptors most representative of both decline class and thinning. Thinning of declining trees increased RLDV (+12 %) and RTDV (+32 %), but reduced tip mycorrhizal colonization and vitality over time compared with non-thinned trees, whereas the opposite occurred in healthy trees, together with a marked decrease in branching. After thinning, there was an initial reduction in the structure of the ectomycorrhizal community, although recovery occurred about 10 months later, regardless of decline severity.Conclusions Decline causes losses of fine root length, and a moderate recovery can be achieved by thinning, allowing better soil exploration by oak roots. The close correlation between root vitality and mycorrhizal colonization and their deterioration after thinning indicates that decline does not benefit from reduced root competition, excluding the hypothesis of limited water and nutrient availability as a possible cause of the syndrome in this forest.
Annals of Botany – Oxford University Press
Published: May 1, 2017
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