Mechanisms of piñon pine mortality after severe drought: A retrospective study of mature trees

Monica L. Gaylord, Thomas E. Kolb, Nate G. McDowell, Frederick Meinzer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Conifers have incurred high mortality during recent global-change-type drought(s) in the western USA. Mechanisms of drought-related tree mortality need to be resolved to support predictions of the impacts of future increases in aridity on vegetation. Hydraulic failure, carbon starvation and lethal biotic agents are three potentially interrelated mechanisms of tree mortality during drought. Our study compared a suite of measurements related to these mechanisms between 49 mature piñon pine (Pinus edulis Engelm.) trees that survived severe drought in 2002 (live trees) and 49 trees that died during the drought (dead trees) over three sites in Arizona and New Mexico. Results were consistent over all sites indicating common mortality mechanisms over a wide region rather than site-specific mechanisms. We found evidence for an interactive role of hydraulic failure, carbon starvation and biotic agents in tree death. For the decade prior to the mortality event, dead trees had twofold greater sapwood cavitation based on frequency of aspirated tracheid pits observed with scanning electron microscopy (SEM), smaller inter-tracheid pit diameter measured by SEM, greater diffusional constraints to photosynthesis based on higher wood δ13C, smaller xylem resin ducts, lower radial growth and more bark beetle (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) attacks than live trees. Results suggest that sapwood cavitation, low carbon assimilation and low resin defense predispose piñon pine trees to bark beetle attacks and mortality during severe drought. Our novel approach is an important step forward to yield new insights into how trees die via retrospective analysis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)806-816
Number of pages11
JournalTree Physiology
Issue number8
StatePublished - May 29 2015


  • Pinus edulis
  • bark beetles
  • carbon starvation
  • hydraulic failure
  • resin ducts

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Plant Science


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