Fuels and fires influence vegetation via above- and belowground pathways in a high-diversity plant community
© 2015 British Ecological Society. Fire strongly influences plant populations and communities around the world, making it an important agent of plant evolution. Fire influences vegetation through multiple pathways, both above- and belowground. Few studies have yet attempted to tie these pathways together in a mechanistic way through soil heating even though the importance of soil heating for plants in fire-prone ecosystems is increasingly recognized. Here we combine an experimental approach with structural equation modelling (SEM) to simultaneously examine multiple pathways through which fire might influence herbaceous vegetation. In a high-diversity longleaf pine groundcover community in Louisiana, USA, we manipulated fine-fuel biomass and monitored the resulting fires with high-resolution thermocouples placed in vertical profile above- and belowground. We predicted that vegetation response to burning would be inversely related to fuel load owing to relationships among fuels, fire temperature, duration and soil heating. We found that fuel manipulations altered fire properties and vegetation responses, of which soil heating proved to be a highly accurate predictor. Fire duration acting through soil heating was important for vegetation response in our SEMs, whereas fire temperature was not. Our results indicate that in this herbaceous plant community, fire duration is a good predictor of soil heating and therefore of vegetation response to fire. Soil heating may be the key determinant of vegetation response to fire in ecosystems wherein plants persist by resprouting or reseeding from soil-stored propagules. Synthesis. Our SEMs demonstrate how the complex pathways through which fires influence plant community structure and dynamics can be examined simultaneously. Comparative studies of these pathways across different communities will provide important insights into the ecology, evolution and conservation of fire-prone ecosystems. In a species-rich herbaceous plant community in the longleaf pine ecosystem, fire-residence time was a good predictor of soil heating and of vegetation response to fire, whereas temperature was not. Our results suggest soil heating is the key determinant of vegetation response to fire in ecosystems where plants persist by resprouting or reseeding from soil-stored seeds.
Publication Source (Journal or Book title)
Journal of Ecology
Gagnon, P., Passmore, H., Slocum, M., Myers, J., Harms, K., Platt, W., & Paine, C. (2015). Fuels and fires influence vegetation via above- and belowground pathways in a high-diversity plant community. Journal of Ecology, 103 (4), 1009-1019. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.12421