Fire-resistance in a hotter future

Fire-resistant traits may help tree communities survive a warmer climate in which wildfires are expected to increase in frequency.

Data resources used via GBIF : 578,071 species occurrences
Bushfire in Masindi, Uganda

Bushfire in Masindi, Uganda. Photo by flöschen licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Fires are common in drier regions of the world, and plants in such ecosystems have evolved traits to tolerate frequent burning and intense temperatures. The mechanisms involved in the evolution of fire-tolerance through e.g. thickened bark, however, are unknown.

In this study, researchers compiled a database of bark thickness for more than 500 woody plant species, and used GBIF-mediated occurrences combined with climate data to establish environmental niches for each species. By including a dataset on occurrences of fires, the researchers describe a strong, global link between fire frequency and bark thickness. On average, species found in fire-frequent savannas have bark three times thicker than species in fire-infrequent forests.

The researchers further assessed the vulnerability of communities under future scenarios, and found that seasonal forests and savannas are robust, while tropical rainforests may be especially vulnerable, as wildfires are expected to increase in frequency in warmer climates.

Citations

Pellegrini AFA, Anderegg WRL, Paine CET, Hoffmann WA, Kartzinel T, Rabin SS, Sheil D, Franco AC and Pacala SW (2017) Convergence of bark investment according to fire and climate structures ecosystem vulnerability to future change. Ecology Letters. Wiley-Blackwell 20(3): 307–316. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/ele.12725.

Subject