To core, or not to core: the impact of coring on tree health and a best-practice framework for collecting dendrochronological information from living trees

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Abstract

Trees are natural repositories of valuable environmental information that is preserved in the growth and structure of their stems, branches and roots. Dendrochronological analyses, based on the counting, crossdating and characterisation of incrementally formed wood rings, offer powerful insights for diverse fields including ecology, climatology and archaeology. The application of this toolset is likely to increase in popularity over coming decades due to advances in the field and a reduction in the cost of analyses. In research settings where the continued value of living trees subject to dendrochronological investigation is important, the use of an increment bore corer to extract trunk tissue is considered the best option to minimise negative impacts on tree health (e.g. stress and fitness). A small and fragmented body of literature, however, reports significant after-effects, and in some cases fatal outcomes, from this sampling technique. As it stands, the literature documenting increment bore coring (IBC) impacts lacks experimental consistency and is poorly replicated, making it difficult for prospective users of the method to assess likely tree responses to coring. This paucity of information has the potential to lead to destructive misuse of the method and also limits its safe implementation in circumstances where the risk of impacts may be appropriate. If IBC is to fulfil its potential as a method of choice across research fields, then we must first address our limited understanding of IBC impacts and provide a framework for its appropriate future use. Firstly, we review the historical context of studies examining the impacts of IBC on trees to identify known patterns, focal issues and biases in existing knowledge. IBC wound responses, particularly those that impact on lumber quality, have been the primary focus of prior studies. No universal treatment was identified that conclusively improved wound healing and few studies have linked wound responses to tree health impacts. Secondly, we build on literature insights using a theoretical approach to identify the most important factors to guide future research involving implementation of IBC, including innate tree characteristics and environmental factors. Thirdly, we synthesise and interrogate the quantitative data available through meta-analysis to identify risk factors for wound reactions. Although poor reporting standards, restricted scopes and a bias towards temperate ecosystems limited quantitative insight, we found that complete cambial wound closure could still harbour high rates of internal trunk decay, and that conditions favouring faster growth generally correlated with reduced indices of internal and external damage in broadleaved taxa. Finally, we propose a framework for guiding best-practice application of IBC to address knowledge gaps and maximise the utility of this method, including standardised reporting indices for identifying and minimising negative impacts on tree health. While IBC is an underutilised tool of ecological enquiry with broad applicability, the method will always incur some risk of negative impacts on the cored tree. We caution that the decision to core, or not to core, must be given careful consideration on a case-by-case basis. In time, we are confident that this choice will be better informed by evidence-based insight.

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