Sparks of creation: Fire as a primary driver of global plant diversity

First global-scale assessment suggests underappreciated of role of fire in producing—and predicting—species variety

Data resources used via GBIF : 109,140,607 georeferenced plant occurrences
Pinus-palustris-iNat-2355459-thehaplesshiker
Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), one week after a prescribed burn, central Florida. Photo by thehaplesshiker via iNaturalist research-grade dataset, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

Why are there so many species? Ecologists persist in efforts to refine our understanding of how factors like climate, productivity and species interactions contribute to the boundless variety of life on earth. Disturbance receives it share of attention, at least in some forms, but here the authors call attention to one widespread disruptive force—namely, fire—that seems to have escaped in-depth study.

This first global assessment of fire regimes examines temporal and spatial patterns of speciation and plant diversity across 753 terrestrial ecoregions that account for 88 per cent of land surface. The authors combined thermal remote-sensing and climate data with species richness data in hope of unlocking relationships between ecoregional environmental variables and plant diversity. While relying on data from Kier et al. (2005) as their primary data source, the authors also test their results against more than 109 million GBIF-mediated plant occurrences.

Despite known limitations to the study’s scale and data biases, clear patterns emerged from analyses of both data sources, suggesting that fire activity is one of the strongest indicators—perhaps the strongest indicator—of coarse-scale plant diversity. Such results suggest the value of further study of fire regimes and an ongoing search for more smoking Gunnera.

Citations

Pausas JG and Ribeiro E (2017) Fire and plant diversity at the global scale. Global Ecology and Biogeography. Wiley-Blackwell 26(8): 889–897. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/geb.12596.

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