Natural fires ignited by lightning strikes following droughts frequently are posited as the ecological mechanism maintaining discontinuous tree cover and grass-dominated ground layers in savannas. Such fires, however, may not reliably maintain humid savannas. We propose that savanna trees producing pyrogenic shed leaves might engineer fire characteristics, affecting ground-layer plants in ways that maintain humid savannas. We explored our hypothesis in a high-rainfall, frequently burned pine savanna in which the dominant tree, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), produces resinous needles that become highly flammable when shed and dried. We postulated that pyrogenic needles should have much greater influence on fire characteristics at ground level, and hence post-fire responses of dominant shrubs and grasses, than other abundant fine fuels (shed oak leaves and grass culms). We further reasoned that these effects should increase with amounts of needles. We managed site conditions that affect fuels (time since fire, dominant vegetation), manipulated amounts of needles in ground-layer plots, prescribed burned the plots, and measured fire characteristics at ground level. We also measured characteristics of ground-layer oaks and grasses before, then 2 and 8 months after fires. We tested our hypotheses regarding effects of pyrogenic pine fuels on fire characteristics and vegetation regrowth and explored direct and indirect effects of fuels on fire characteristics and vegetation using a structural equation model. Pine needles influenced fire characteristics, elevating maximum temperature increases, durations of heating above 60°C, and fine fuel consumption considerably above measurements when fuels only included other savanna plants. Presence of pine needles depressed post-fire numbers of oak stems and grass culms, especially in the interior of grass genets, as well as post-fire flowering of grasses. The structural equation model indicated strong direct and indirect pathways from pine needles to post-fire responses of oaks and grasses. The experimental field tests of hypotheses, bolstered by structural equation modeling, indicate pyrogenic fine fuels modify characteristics of prescribed fires at ground level, negatively affecting dominant ground-layer oaks and grasses. Frequent fires fueled by pyrogenic needles should maintain humid savannas and generate spatial pyrodiversity that affects composition and dynamics of pine savanna ground-layer vegetation.
© 2016 by the Ecological Society of America.
Platt WJ, Ellair DP, Huffman JM, Potts SE, Beckage B. Pyrogenic fuels produced by savanna trees can engineer humid savannas. Ecological Monographs. 2016 Aug;86(3):352-72.