Ecological disturbances can significantly affect biogeochemical cycles in terrestrial ecosystems, but the biogeochemical consequences of the extensive mountain pine beetle outbreak in high elevation whitebark pine (WbP) (Pinus albicaulis) ecosystems of western North America have not been previously investigated. Mountain pine beetle attack has driven widespread WbP mortality, which could drive shifts in both the pools and fluxes of nitrogen (N) within these ecosystems. Because N availability can limit forest regrowth, understanding how beetle-induced mortality affects N cycling in WbP stands may be critical to understanding the trajectory of ecosystem recovery. Thus, we measured above- and belowground N pools and fluxes for trees representing three different times since beetle attack, including unattacked trees. Litterfall N inputs were more than ten times higher under recently attacked trees compared to unattacked trees. Soil inorganic N concentrations also increased following beetle attack, potentially driven by a more than two-fold increase in ammonium (NH4+) concentrations in the surface soil organic horizon. However, there were no significant differences in mineral soil inorganic N or soil microbial biomass N concentrations between attacked and unattacked trees, implying that short-term changes in N cycling in response to the initial stages of WbP attack were restricted to the organic horizon. Our results suggest that while mountain pine beetle attack drives a pulse of N from the canopy to the forest floor, changes in litterfall quality and quantity do not have profound effects on soil biogeochemical cycling, at least in the short-term. However, continuous observation of these important ecosystems will be crucial to determining the long-term biogeochemical effects of mountain pine beetle outbreaks.
Additional publication details
Nitrogen cycling responses to mountain pine beetle disturbance in a high elevation whitebark pine ecosystem