by David B. Lindenmayer, Wade Blanchard, Lachlan McBurney, David Blair, Sam Banks, Gene E. Likens, Jerry F. Franklin, William F. Laurance, John A. R. Stein, Philip Gibbons
Large trees with cavities provide critical ecological functions in forests worldwide, including vital nesting and denning resources for many species. However, many ecosystems are experiencing increasingly rapid loss of large trees or a failure to recruit new large trees or both. We quantify this problem in a globally iconic ecosystem in southeastern Australia – forests dominated by the world's tallest angiosperms, Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans). Tree, stand and landscape-level factors influencing the death and collapse of large living cavity trees and the decay and collapse of dead trees with cavities are documented using a suite of long-term datasets gathered between 1983 and 2011. The historical rate of tree mortality on unburned sites between 1997 and 2011 was >14% with a mortality spike in the driest period (2006–2009). Following a major wildfire in 2009, 79% of large living trees with cavities died and 57–100% of large dead trees were destroyed on burned sites. Repeated measurements between 1997 and 2011 revealed no recruitment of any new large trees with cavities on any of our unburned or burned sites. Transition probability matrices of large trees with cavities through increasingly decayed condition states projects a severe shortage of large trees with cavities by 2039 that will continue until at least 2067. This large cavity tree crisis in Mountain Ash forests is a product of: (1) the prolonged time required (>120 years) for initiation of cavities; and (2) repeated past wildfires and widespread logging operations. These latter factors have resulted in all landscapes being dominated by stands =72 years and just 1.16% of forest being unburned and unlogged. We discuss how the features that make Mountain Ash forests vulnerable to a decline in large tree abundance are shared with many forest types worldwide.