The increased frequency and intensity of warming-induced droughts have triggered dieback episodes affecting many forest types and tree species worldwide. Tree plantations are not exempt as they can be more vulnerable to drought than natural forests because of their lower structural and genetic diversity. Therefore, disentangling the physiological mechanisms leading to growth decline and tree mortality can provide tools to adapt forest management to climate change. In this study, we investigated a Pinus nigra
Arn. plantation situated in northern Spain, in which some trees showed canopy dieback and radial-growth decline. We analyzed how radial growth and its responses to drought events differed between non-declining (ND) and declining (D) trees showing low and high canopy defoliation, respectively, in combination with carbon (δ13
C) and oxygen (δ18
O) isotope ratios in tree rings. The radial growth of P. nigra
was constrained by water availability during the growing season and the previous autumn. The radial growth of D trees showed higher sensitivity to drought than ND trees. This fact is in accordance with the lower drought resilience and negative growth trends observed in D trees. Both tree classes differed in their growth from 2012 onwards, with D trees showing a reduced growth compared to ND trees. The positive δ13
O relationship together with the uncoupling between growth and intrinsic water-use efficiency suggest that D trees have less tight stomatal regulation than ND trees, which could involve a high risk of xylem embolism in the former class. Our results suggest that different water use strategies between coexisting ND and D trees were behind the differences in growth patterns and point to hydraulic failure as a possible mechanism triggering dieback and growth decline.
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