Peeking under the canopy: anomalously short fire-return intervals alter subalpine forest understory plant communities


Climate change is driving changes in disturbance regimes world-wide. In forests adapted to infrequent, high-severity fires, recent anomalously short fire-return intervals (FRIs) have resulted in greatly reduced postfire tree regeneration. However, effects on understory plant communities remain unexplored. Understory plant communities were sampled in 31 plot pairs across Greater Yellowstone (Wyoming, USA). Each pair included one plot burned at high severity twice in <30 yr and oneplot burned in the same most recent fire but not burned previously for >125 yr. Understory communities following short-interval fires were also compared with those following the previous long-interval fire. Species capable of growing in drier conditions and in lower vegetation zones became more abundant and regional differences in plant communities declined following short-interval fire. Dissimilarity between plot pairs increased in mesic settings and decreased with time since fire and postfire winter snowfall. Reduced postfire tree density following short-interval fire rather than FRI per se affected the occurrence of most plant species. Anomalously short FRIs altered understory plant communities in space and time, with some indications of community thermophilization and regional homogenization. These and other shifts in understory plant communities may continue with ongoing changes in climate and fire across temperate forests.

New Phytologist 239:1225–1238