Assessing the vulnerability of tree species to insect and disease threats

What are the most serious insect and disease threats to each of our native tree species? Which tree species are most vulnerable to insects and diseases? A team of researchers answered these questions in two papers published in the journals Global Ecology and Conservation and Forests.

Laurel Wilt killing Redbay treesDiseases and insects, particularly those that are non-native and invasive, may pose the most destructive threat to North American forests. Tree species, however, differ in important traits such as life-history strategies and population dynamics, which could drive varying responses to these threats. To address this challenge, a team of researchers implemented a national framework to prioritize forest tree species for conservation, management and monitoring in the face of insect and disease threats. They first compiled a list of the most serious insect and disease threats for each of 419 native tree species, and then assigned a severity rating for each of the 1378 combinations between tree hosts and insect and disease agents. This work, including maps of geographic hotspots of potential forest impacts associated with insects and diseases, was described in the journal Forests. The researchers then combined this list with trait data for each tree species as part of the Project CAPTURE priority-setting framework (Conservation Assessment and Prioritization of Forest Trees Under Risk of Extirpation). Data-driven and guided by expert opinion, Project CAPTURE groups species into vulnerability classes that may require different management and conservation strategies. This effort, described in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, identified 15 species which require the most immediate conservation intervention, as well as others that could be targets for less urgent management actions. 

Pictured: Laurel wilt, a combination of an exotic insect and an exotic disease, is killing millions of redbay trees throughout the Southeast, including in Georgia. Photo by Kevin M. Potter, North Carolina State University and USDA Forest Service.


Related publications:


Research Partners: USDA Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis; State and Private Forestry; National Forest System. 

External Partners/Collaborators: Robert Jetton and Maria Escanferla, North Carolina State University.

Contact: Kevin M. Potter, PhD, collaborating North Carolina State University researcher, Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, kevin.potter@usda.gov.


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