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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Long-term dynamics of the iconic old-forest lichen Usnea longissima in a protected landscape

Esseen, P. -A.; Rytterstam, J.; Atrena, A.; Jonsson, B. G.


Long-term data on spatial dynamics of epiphytic lichens associated with old-growth forests are fundamental for understanding how environmental factors drive their extinction and colonization in heterogeneous landscapes. This study focuses on Usnea longissima, a flagship species for biodiversity conservation. By using a long-term data set (37 yr.) of U. longissima in old Picea abies forests in Skuleskogen National Park, Sweden, we examined changes in the number of host trees, population size (sum of thallus length), extinction, colonization, dispersal, and distribution in a protected landscape. We surveyed the lichen in 1984-1985 by applying a line transect inventory and a total population inventory and tagged 355 occupied trees with an aluminium plate buried in the ground. We repeated the survey in 2021 using a metal detector and recorded GPS-position of host trees, tree and lichen population characteristics. We also measured the structure and age (tree-ring data) of the forest to understand how disturbance history influenced lichen populations. Usnea longissima occurred on 66 of the tagged trees and we recorded 141 new host trees. The number of host trees decreased with 41.7% and the population size with 41.9%. One third of the decline was caused by deterministic extinction (treefalls) and two thirds by stochastic extinction on standing trees. The probability of stochastic extinction on live trees decreased with population size in logistic regression. The decline in the sites with largest populations (35-87% loss) was more influenced by limited colonization than extinction. Colonization was highest in humid north-facing hillslopes with multi-layered forests driven by gap dynamics. The lichen was strongly dispersal-limited, with a median effective horizontal dispersal of only 3.8 m in 37 yr., explaining its strong dependence of long continuity of forest cover. The populations were clustered and had substantial local turnover, yet with stable distribution at landscape scale. The tree-ring index, growth releases and gap recruitments indicate extensive harvesting similar to 1860-1900, but without major disturbances during the last 70-80 yr. Instead, the decline of U. longissima was probably driven by air pollution, climate change (autumn/winter mortality and heatwaves) and denser forests. Our findings highlight that the long-term survival of this lichen may be at risk even in forests having a strong level of protection.


Air pollution; Colonization; Extinction; Forest structure; Lichen dispersal; Long-term monitoring

Published in

Forest Ecology and Management
2023, Volume: 546, article number: 121369
Publisher: ELSEVIER