Riparian Ecosystem Response to Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (Adelges tsugae) Induced Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) Mortality in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, USA

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Huddleston, Misty Dawn
hemlock woolly adelgid; eastern hemlock; ecosystem; macroinvertebrate; aquatic; Biology; Entomology; Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecology
thesis / dissertation description
An invasive insect, hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA), has initiated widespread hemlock decline and mortality in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). Riparian hemlock mortality impacts on vegetative and aquatic systems of first-order, headwater streams were evaluated. Reference sites for this study were representative of the best available conditions within the GSMNP, with initial stages of HWA presence. Impacted sites were defined as areas with over 90 percent hemlock mortality. Impacted streams had decreased canopy coverage and increased light availability. Residual red maple, yellow birch, and sweet birch capitalized on the loss of hemlock, with increases in relative basal area and species importance values. Rosebay rhododendron responded with increased density and height at impacted sites, thereby preventing woody regeneration. Since long-term regeneration and post-mortality canopy recruitment are limited, alterations of vegetative composition and structure in the stream riparian zone are expected. A seasonal assessment (Sept. 2009 – March 2010) of aquatic impacts revealed increased diurnal variation in stream temperature and exhibited cooler temperatures during the colder months than reference streams. Impacted streams exhibited greater amounts and larger size classes of large woody debris (LWD). Higher concentrations for several nutrients, including silicon, sodium, potassium, magnesium, chlorine, and copper were detected in impacted streams than detected in reference streams. Impacted streams were characterized by higher pH and increased acid neutralization capacity, while reference streams exhibited nitrate concentrations three times higher than impacted stream concentrations. Reference streams were experiencing the initial stage of HWA-induced defoliations, increasing stream nitrate concentrations, while impacted sites had levels suggesting nitrate concentrations have returned to pre-infestation levels. A seasonal assessment of macroinvertebrates found species diversity, abundance, and taxa richness were not affected by hemlock mortality. Impacted streams had a lower density of Chironomidae and Ephemeroptera when compared to reference streams, while Pleuroceridae snails were virtually eliminated at impacted stream sites. Reference streams were dominated by the collector/filter functional feeding group (FFG), while impacted streams were dominated by the scraper FFG. Hemlock mortality induced by the presence of HWA has resulted in short-term impacts to vegetative and aquatic dynamics in stream riparian areas of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.