RESCOE - Risk Assessment And Ecological Sustainability of Cork Oak in Montado Ecosystems
Coordinator - Sofia Costa
Programme - PTDC/BIA-BEC/102834/2008
Execution dates - 2010-01-01 - 2012-12-31 (36 Months)
Funding Entity - FCT
Total Funding - 199,87 €
Proponent Institution -
Participating Institutions
Centro de Ecologia Funcional - Universidade de Coimbra
Instituto do Mar - Universidade de Coimbra
Universidade do Algarve
Universidade do Minho

The Montado, originally a semi-natural, low-disturbance agro-silvo-pastoral ecosystem, covers over 700 000 hectares of Portugal. Once a European example for management practices and sustainability, the Montado has, since the second half of the 20th century, been declining considerably, under circumstances that have thus far not been thoroughly explained. A large number of factors are thought to be implicated in the progressive cork oak decline and heavy tree mortality, and these may involve the activity of a complex of diseases and parasites, land management practices including the exploitation intensification of the Montado ecosystem, and abiotic factors, particularly drought. Many of the potential factors have not been investigated in detail, and in some cases, not at all. Most importantly, a multi-factorial, multi-disciplinary research approach has, to our knowledge, never been attempted in the Montado ecosystems.
Our multi-faceted team comprises 4 different institutes and includes national experts in the research field, with international impact research on nematology, microbial ecology, plant pathology, ecophysiology and landscape ecology. Most of our team members have already done research on Montado ecosystems, and have worked jointly in collaboration previously.
We will focus our research on biotic and abiotic factors that we envisage could play a role in cork oak decline. This, of course, includes organisms, such as Phytophthora spp., and abiotic factors, such as drought, that have been shown to have an important contribution, but for which knowledge is lacking on the interactions with other factors. We will also investigate groups of organisms whose contribution may have been overlooked in previous studies, but that have been show to be important in shaping plant distribution in other ecosystems, such as plant parasitic nematodes. These studies will include the first surveys for new pests and diseases of oak trees that could be a major threat to the Portuguese Montado: Bursaphelenchus spp. and Phytophthora ramorum.
Not only will we assess the role of cork oak antagonists in the field and in controlled experiments, we will also evaluate the putatively beneficial role of mutualists (ectomycorrhizal fungi); and we will investigate other organisms with an unknown role. These include the cork oak associated flora, that can either act as reservoir for or suppress pests and diseases; and endophytic bacteria, that could either have a pathogenic role in cork oak, or promote tree health and growth. In fact, we intend to collect as much information on biotic and abiotic factors as is currently feasible on sampling sites with known decline history.
Water-stress can be a significant problem for cork oaks in these ecosystems, and it can either increase pathogen attack of diseased trees, or suppress antagonists themselves; we will collect field data on water availability, management practices, climatic conditions and plant performance to compare with decline history and with our results on the biotic component of the ecosystem. The effects of water stress on selected antagonists and mutualists will be further evaluated in controlled conditions.
All our results will be analysed in an integrative way, using multi-factorial and multi-variate analyses that should allow the identification of particular sets of conditions and factor combinations that trigger or worsen cork oak decline. Pairwise interactions between different factors will also be sought to specifically address fine interactions. Our findings on potential threats to cork oak and sustainability of he Montado will be interpreted in the light of climate change and land use trends and scenarios. We will then meet the farmers to raise their awareness of these issues and to have a better understanding of what applied measures could be put into practice to alleviate cork oak decline and increase the ecological sustainability of the Montado. In summary, we will produce a much needed framework of knowledge on the ecological interactions involved in cork oak decline, put it into context of predicted land use and climate change scenarios, and thereby supply information for land management policy and decision-making bodies.

Members on this project