Forests typically experience a mix of anthropogenic, natural and climate-induced stressors of different intensities, creating a mosaic of stressor combinations across the landscape. When multiple stressors co-occur, their combined impact on plant growth is often greater than expected based on single-factor studies (i.e., synergistic), potentially causing catastrophic dysfunction of physiological processes from an otherwise recoverable situation. Drought and herbivory are two stressors that commonly co-occur in forested ecosystems, and have the potential to 'overlap' in their impacts on various plant traits and processes. However, the combined impacts from these two stressors may not be predictable based on additive models from single-stressor studies. Moreover, the impacts and subsequent recovery may be strongly influenced by the relative intensities of each stressor. Here, we applied drought stress and simulated bark-feeding herbivory at three levels of intensity (control, moderate and severe) in a full factorial design on young Pinus sylvestris L. seedlings. We assessed if the combined effects from two stressors were additive (responses were equal to the sum of the single-factor effects), synergistic (greater than expected) or antagonistic (less than expected) on a suite of morphological and physiological traits at the leaf-, tissue- and whole-plant level. We additionally investigated whether recovery from herbivory was dependent on relief from drought. The two stressors had synergistic impacts on specific leaf area and water-use efficiency, additive effects on height and root-to-shoot ratios, but antagonistic effects on photosynthesis, conductance and, most notably, on root, shoot and whole-plant biomass. Nevertheless, the magnitude and direction of the combined impacts were often dependent on the relative intensities of each stressor, leading to many additive or synergistic responses from specific stressor combinations. Also, seedling recovery was far more dependent on the previous year's drought compared with the previous year's herbivory, demonstrating the influence of one stressor over another during recovery. Our study reveals for the first time, the importance of not only the presence or absence of drought and herbivory stressors, but also shows that their relative intensities are critical in determining the direction and magnitude of their impacts on establishing seedlings.
Keywords: Scots pine; boreal forest; disturbance; photosynthesis; pine weevil; seedlings; stressors.