Bark beetle infestation is a well-known cause of historical low-level disturbance in southwestern ponderosa pine forests, but recent fire exclusion and increased tree densities have enabled large-scale bark beetle outbreaks with unknown consequences for ecosystem function. Uninfested and beetle-infested plots (n = 10 pairs of plots on two aspects) of ponderosa pine were compared over one growing season in the Sierra Ancha Experimental Forest, AZ to determine whether infestation was correlated with differences in carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) pools and fluxes in aboveground biomass and soils. Infested plots had at least 80% of the overstory ponderosa pine trees attacked by bark beetles within 2 years of our measurements. Both uninfested and infested plots stored ∼9 kg C m-2 in aboveground tree biomass, but infested plots held 60% of this aboveground tree biomass in dead trees, compared to 5% in uninfested plots. We hypothesized that decreased belowground C allocation following beetle-induced tree mortality would alter soil respiration rates, but this hypothesis was not supported; throughout the growing season, soil respiration in infested plots was similar to uninfested plots. In contrast, several results supported the hypothesis that premature needlefall from infested trees provided a pulse of low C:N needlefall that altered soil N cycling. The C:N mass ratio of pine needlefall in infested plots (∼45) was lower than uninfested plots (∼95) throughout the growing season. Mineral soils from infested plots had greater laboratory net nitrification rates and field resin bag ammonium accumulation than uninfested plots. As bark beetle outbreaks become increasingly prevalent in western landscapes, longer-term biogeochemical studies on interactions with other disturbances (e.g. fire, harvesting, etc.) will be required to predict changes in ecosystem structure and function.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Nature and Landscape Conservation
- Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law