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Background and Aims Exotic herbivores that lack a coevolutionary history with their host plants can benefit from poorly adapted host defences, potentially leading to rapid population growth of the herbivore and severe damage to its plant hosts. The hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae) is an exotic hemipteran that feeds on the long-lived conifer eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), causing rapid mortality of infested trees. While the mechanism of this mortality is unknown, evidence indicates that A. tsugae feeding causes a hypersensitive response and alters wood anatomy. This study investigated the effect of A. tsugae feeding on biomechanical properties at different spatial scales: needles, twigs and branches.

Methods Uninfested and A. tsugae-infested samples were collected from a common garden experiment as well as from naturally infested urban and rural field sites. Tension and flexure mechanical tests were used to quantify biomechanical properties of the different tissues. In tissues that showed a significant effect of herbivory, the potential contributions of lignin and tissue density on the results were quantified.

Key Results Adelges tsugae infestation decreased the abscission strength, but not flexibility, of needles. A. tsugae feeding also decreased mechanical strength and flexibility in currently attacked twigs, but this effect disappeared in older, previously attacked branches. Lignin and twig tissue density contributed to differences in mechanical strength but were not affected by insect treatment.

Conclusions Decreased strength and flexibility in twigs, along with decreased needle strength, suggest that infested trees experience resource stress. Altered growth patterns and cell wall chemistry probably contribute to these mechanical effects. Consistent site effects emphasize the role of environmental variation in mechanical traits. The mechanical changes measured here may increase susceptibility to abiotic physical stressors in hemlocks colonized by A. tsugae. Thus, the interaction between herbivore and physical stresses is probably accelerating the decline of eastern hemlock, as HWA continues to expand its range.