A synthesis of postfire recovery traits of woody plants in Australian ecosystems

Peter J Clarke, Michael Lawes, Brett Murphy, Jeremy Russell-Smith, Catherine Nano, R Bradstock, Neal Enright, Joseph Fontaine, Carl Gosper, Ian Radford, Jeremy J Midgley, Richard Gunton

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    Postfire resprouting and recruitment from seed are key plant life-history traits that influence population dynamics, community composition and ecosystem function. Species can have one or both of these mechanisms. They confer resilience, which may determine community composition through differential species persistence after fire. To predict ecosystem level responses to changes in climate and fire conditions, we examined the proportions of these plant fire-adaptive traits among woody growth forms of 2880 taxa, in eight fire-prone ecosystems comprising ~ 87% of Australia's land area. Shrubs comprised 64% of the taxa. More tree (> 84%) than shrub (~ 50%) taxa resprouted. Basal, epicormic and apical resprouting occurred in 71%, 22% and 3% of the taxa, respectively. Most rainforest taxa (91%) were basal resprouters. Many trees (59%) in frequently-burnt eucalypt forest and savanna resprouted epicormically. Although crown fire killed many mallee (62%) and heathland (48%) taxa, fire-cued seeding was common in these systems. Postfire seeding was uncommon in rainforest and in arid Acacia communities that burnt infrequently at low intensity. Resprouting was positively associated with ecosystem productivity, but resprouting type (e.g. basal or epicormic) was associated with local scale fire activity, especially fire frequency. Although rainforest trees can resprout they cannot recruit after intense fires and may decline under future fires. Semi-arid Acacia communities would be susceptible to increasing fire frequencies because they contain few postfire seeders. Ecosystems dominated by obligate seeders (mallee, heath) are also susceptible because predicted shorter inter-fire intervals will prevent seed bank accumulation. Savanna may be resilient to future fires because of the adaptive advantage of epicormic resprouting among the eucalypts. The substantial non-resprouting shrub component of shrublands may decline, but resilient Eucalyptus spp. will continue to dominate under future fire regimes. These patterns of resprouting and postfire seeding provide new insights to ecosystem assembly, resilience and vulnerability to changing fire regimes on this fire-prone continent. 
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)31-42
    Number of pages12
    JournalScience of the Total Environment
    Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2015


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