Aim: Knowledge of how climate and fire regimes affect regeneration in foundation species is critical to the conservation of entire ecosystems. Different stages of regeneration often require different ecological conditions, but dynamic constraints on regeneration are poorly known for species that regenerate only after infrequent wildfires. Focussing on a long-lived, foundation tree species (Eucalyptus regnans), we tested the hypothesis that the relative importance of fire regime variables (fire severity and time since previous fire) and environmental gradients on post-fire regeneration would shift as seedlings developed.
Location: South-eastern Australia. Methods: Following a large (> 59,000 ha) summer wildfire in 2009, we sampled 131 sites (61 burnt) annually for four years (2009-2012), representing the range of environmental conditions in which E. regnans occurs. We analysed the effect of fire severity, time since fire and environmental variables on early regeneration processes critical for post-fire species distributions: seedling establishment, seedling density and growth through different height stages (10 cm, 25 cm, 50 cm and 200 cm).
Results: The regeneration niche of E. regnans was defined by different factors at different stages of development. Initially, seedlings established prolifically on burnt sites, regardless of severity. Three years into the regeneration process, high-severity fire became the dominant driver of seedling persistence and growth over 25 cm. Growth over 50 cm was dependent on environmental conditions relating to elevation and precipitation.
Main conclusions: Our results describe how fire occurrence, fire severity and environmental gradients affected seedling establishment, persistence and growth. The dynamic constraints on regeneration likely reflect temporal changes in the biotic and abiotic environment and variation in resource requirements during the early post-fire years. Our findings will enable more accurate forecasts of species distributions to assist forest conservation in the face of global changes in climate and fire regimes.