Facultative and obligate trees in a mesic savanna: Fire effects on savanna structure imply contrasting strategies of eco-taxonomic groups

Michelle E. Freeman, Brett P. Murphy, Anna E. Richards, Peter A. Vesk, Garry D. Cook

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    Abstract

    Fire is a major determinant of savanna tree communities and, as such, manipulation of fire frequency is an important management tool. Resolving the effects of fire management on tree size class distributions can help managers predict and plan for short-termecological and economic outcomes, reveal different strategies by which woody plants cope with frequent fire, and help us predict vegetation changes under future fire scenarios. Savanna structure and size class distribution are strongly influenced by the ability of suppressed tree resprouts to escape stem death by frequent fire. A widespread assumption is that resprouts have an imperative to escape fire to reach sexual maturity in the canopy and thereby ensure long-term species viability. We use a census of Australian mesic savanna tree communities subjected to annual, triennial, and fire exclusion (unburnt) fire treatments to ask how fire frequency affects size class distributions within and between eco-taxonomic groups of species. Total tree densities did not significantly differ, but were highest in the triennial (7,610 ± se 1,162 trees ha−1) and unburnt fire treatments (7,051 ± se 578 trees ha−1) and lowest in the annual fire treatment (6,168 ± se 523 trees ha−1). This was caused by increased sapling densities in the triennial and unburnt fire treatments, predominantly of Acacia and pantropical genera. Eucalypts (Eucalyptus and Corymbia spp.) dominated the canopy across all fire treatments indicating relatively greater success in recruiting to larger sizes than other species groups. However, in the sub-canopy size classes eucalypts co-dominated with, and in some size classes were outnumbered by, pantropicals and Acacia, regardless of fire treatment. We hypothesize that such results are caused by fundamental differences in woody plant strategies, in particular sexual reproduction, that have not been widely recognized in Australian savannas.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number644
    Pages (from-to)1-12
    Number of pages12
    JournalFrontiers in Plant Science
    Volume9
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 18 May 2018

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