Comparing statistical and mechanistic models to identify the drivers of mortality within a rear-edge beech population

Since several studies have been reporting an increase in the decline of forests, a major issue in ecology is to better understand and predict tree mortality. The interactions between the different factors and the physiological processes giving rise tree mortality, as well as the inter-individual variability in mortality risk, still need to be better assessed. This study investigates mortality in a rear-edge population of European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) using a combination of statistical and process-based modelling approaches. Based on a survey of 4323 adult beeches since 2002 within a natural reserve, we first used statistical models to quantify the effects of competition, tree growth, size, defoliation and fungi presence on mortality. Secondly, we used an ecophysiological process-based model (PBM) to separate out the different mechanisms giving rise to temporal and inter-individual variations in mortality by simulating depletion of carbon stocks, loss of hydraulic conductance and damage due to late frosts in response to climate. The combination of all these simulated processes was associated with the temporal variations in the population mortality rate. The individual probability of mortality decreased with increasing mean growth, and increased with increasing crown defoliation, earliness of budburst, fungi presence and increasing competition, in the statistical model. Moreover, the interaction between tree size and defoliation was significant, indicating a stronger increase in mortality associated to defoliation in smaller than larger trees. Finally, the PBM predicted a higher conductance loss together with a higher level of carbon reserves for trees with earlier budburst, while the ability to defoliate the crown was found to limit the impact of hydraulic stress at the expense of the accumulation of carbon reserves. We discuss the convergences and divergences obtained between statistical and process-based approaches and we highlight the importance of combining them to characterize the different processes underlying mortality, and the factors modulating individual vulnerability to mortality.