Community-level flammability declines over 25 years of plant invasion in grasslands
1. Exotic plant invasions can alter fire regimes in plant communities. Invaders often possess traits that differ from native plants in the community, resulting in increases or declines in community-level flammability, changing fire regimes and potentially causing long-term modifications to plant community composition. Although considering traits of multiple invaders and native species together is useful to better understand how invasions change community-level flammability, few studies have done this. 2. We measured morphological and flammability traits of 51 native and exotic plant species common in tussock grasslands in New Zealand's south-eastern South Island to examine relationships between morphology and whole-plant and shoot-level flammability. Plant community data from 103 permanent transects in this region measured over a 25-year period (c. 1982-2007) were used to determine how flammability changed with increasing levels of plant invasion. 3. Invasion by exotic plants has led to reduced community-level flammability due to shifts from native tussock grasses with high flammability and high fuel loads to mat-forming exotic forbs with low flammability and little fuel. These changes will likely lead to considerable alterations to the fire regime, resulting in lower intensity fires that burn more patchily and for shorter amounts of time, potentially causing further changes in floristic composition. We found considerable differences in flammability across the wide range of species and growth forms that we studied, emphasising the importance of quantifying species-level flammability and the need to avoid treating grasslands as homogenous in terms of their flammability. Total biomass, leaf length and leaf area were the traits most positively correlated with flammability in these tussock grasslands. 4. Synthesis. We show how plant invasions over decadal time-scales have reduced the community-level flammability of tussock grasslands and, for the first time, demonstrate how this can be driven by exotic forbs. The total biomass of constituent species is a useful surrogate for community flammability across a wide range of species and growth forms in both temperate grasslands and savanna ecosystems and should be used in dynamic global vegetation models to assess how flammability varies under various global change scenarios.... [Show full abstract]
Keywordscommunity dynamics; forb invasion; hawkweed; plant flammability; temporal change; trait-based; tussock grassland; Ecology
Fields of Research0607 Plant Biology; 050103 Invasive Species Ecology; 050104 Landscape Ecology; 05 Environmental Sciences; 06 Biological Sciences; 07 Agricultural and Veterinary Sciences
© 2018 The Authors.