Influence of land-cover change on the spread of an invasive forest pathogen.
Human-caused changes in land use and land cover have dramatically altered ecosystems worldwide and may facilitate the spread of infectious diseases. To address this issue, we examined the influence of land-cover changes between 1942 and 2000 on the establishment of an invasive pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum, which causes the forest disease known as Sudden Oak Death. We assessed effects of land-cover change, forest structure, and understory microclimate on measures of inoculum load and disease prevalence in 102 15 x 15 m plots within a 275-km2 region in northern California. Within a 150 m radius area around each plot, we mapped types of land cover (oak woodland, chaparral, grassland, vineyard, and development) in 1942 and 2000 using detailed aerial photos. During this 58-year period, oak woodlands significantly increased in area by 25%, while grassland and chaparral decreased by 34% and 51%, respectively. Analysis of covariance revealed that vegetation type in 1942 and woodland expansion were significant predictors of pathogen inoculum load in bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), the primary inoculum-producing host for P. ramorum in mixed evergreen forests. Path analysis showed that woodland expansion resulted in larger forests with higher densities of the primary host trees (U. californica, Quercus agrifolia, Q. kelloggii) and cooler understory temperatures. Together, the positive effects of woodland size and negative effects of understory temperature explained significant variation in inoculum load and disease prevalence in bay laurel; host stem density had additional positive effects on inoculum load. We conclude that enlargement of woodlands and closure of canopy gaps, likely due largely to years of fire suppression, facilitated establishment of P. ramorum by increasing the area occupied by inoculum-production foliar hosts and enhancing forest microclimate conditions. Epidemiological studies that incorporate land-use change are rare but may increase understanding of disease dynamics and improve our ability to manage invasive forest pathogens.