Malcolm highlighted, in his own dry way, just how much the field of fire ecology has come since then. In particular, he made the compelling case that plant species in fire-prone ecosystems are adapted to fire regimes and we should place our work in this context. While it is relatively easy to characterize individual fire events and plant community responses to single fires (often limited to the timescales studied by PhD students), these need to be couched in terms of fire return intervals, as well as components of the fires themselves (severity, extent, patchiness). Importantly, he stressed that adaptive characteristics such as thick bark, serotiny, soil seed banks do not guarantee species persistence.
This is something that I have been thinking about lately - that the response to fire of a species can be a population attribute, not a species attribute per se. Let me give you an example.
In 2003, the Victoria alps - from the foothills to the alpine peaks - was burnt in a very large bushfire during a particularly severe drought. The subalpine woodlands and forests, dominated by Eucalyptus pauciflora (Snow Gum), were extensively burned. Snow Gum is a thin-barked species and the above-ground stems seem very sensitive to fire of any intensity. Hence, stems die in just about any fire but individuals recover by vigorous resprouting from a lignotuber. Hence, fire would apparently have very little impact on Snow Gum populations.
By 2009, I started to wonder whether this was true. It dawned on me that in the subalpine woodlands I work in, individual Snow Gums trees had responded quite differently to the same fire event. And this difference was mediated by tree size (or more correctly, girth).
|Snow Gum with small girths - fire-resistant?|
(Photo: John Morgan)
|Snow Gum with big girths - fire-sensitive?|
(Photo: John Morgan)
A quick walk through the forest hinted that resprouting from lignotubers (both the number of stems produced, and their vigour) was most pronounced in plants with small girth. By contrast, very large plants had often succumbed to very low intensity fires. We've started to collect data on this response and I hope to soon have some numbers to support these observations. There clearly is a relationship between girth and the number of dormant buds waiting to be released after fire and I'm sure there are both anatomical and physiological reasons for the response. I'm looking forward to unravelling the mechanisms that underpin these observations.
Interestingly, Malcolm talked about similar findings for tropical savanna trees in Darwin. Hence, it's clear (to me) that population responses must be incorporated into our thinking about vegetation response to fire events. Population dynamics are largely ignored when we assign fire response traits to plant species (i.e. resistant versus sensitive), perhaps to our peril.