Does rapid utilization of elevated nutrient availability allow eucalypts to dominate in the tropical savannas of Australia?

Harinandanan Paramjyothi, Brett P. Murphy, Michael J. Lawes, Natalie A. Rossiter-Rachor, Anna E. Richards

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Northern Australia's savannas are among the most fire-prone biomes on Earth and are dominated by eucalypts (Eucalyptus and Corymbia spp.). It is not clear what processes allow this group to dominate under such extreme fire frequencies and whether a superior ability to compete for nutrients and water might play a role. There is evidence that eucalypts are adapted to frequent fires; juvenile eucalypts escape the fire trap by growing rapidly in height between fires. However, non-eucalypts are less able to escape the fire trap and tend to have stand structures strongly skewed toward suppressed juveniles. The mechanisms that drive these contrasting fire responses are not well understood. Here, we describe the results of a controlled glasshouse seedling experiment that evaluated the relative importance of nutrient and water availability in determining height growth and biomass growth of two eucalypt and one noneucalypt tree species, common in northern Australian savannas. We demonstrate that growth of eucalypt seedlings is particularly responsive to nutrient addition. Eucalypt seedlings are able to rapidly utilize soil nutrients and accumulate biomass at a much greater rate than noneucalypt seedlings. We suggest that a seasonal spike in nutrient availability creates a nutrient-rich microsite that allows eucalypt seedlings to rapidly gain height and biomass, increasing their likelihood of establishing successfully and reaching a fire-resistant size. Our results extend our understanding of how eucalypts dominate northern Australian savannas under extremely high fire frequencies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4021-4030
Number of pages10
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number9
Early online date7 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - May 2020


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