Impact of hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae) infestation on xylem structure and function and leaf physiology in eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

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Hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae Annand) (HWA) is an invasive insect that feeds upon the foliage of eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis (L.) Carrière) trees, leading to a decline in health and often mortality. The exact mechanism leading to the demise of eastern hemlocks remains uncertain because little is known about how HWA infestation directly alters the host's physiology. To evaluate the physiological responses of eastern hemlock during early infestation of HWA, we measured needle loss, xylem hydraulic conductivity, vulnerability to cavitation, tracheid anatomy, leaf-level gas exchange, leaf water potential and foliar cation and nutrient levels on HWA-infested and noninfested even-aged trees in an experimental garden. HWA infestation resulted in higher xylem hydraulic conductivity correlated with an increase in average tracheid lumen area and no difference in vulnerability to cavitation, indicating that needle loss associated with HWA infestation could not be attributed to reduced xylem transport capacity. HWA-infested trees exhibited higher rates of net photosynthesis and significant changes in foliar nutrient partitioning, but showed no differences in branch increment growth rates compared with noninfested trees. This study suggests that HWA-induced decline in the health of eastern hemlock trees is not initially caused by compromised water relations or needle loss.

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Functional Plant Biology