Determinants of flammability in savanna grass species.
Journal of Ecology
Tropical grasses fuel the majority of fires on Earth. In fire-prone landscapes, enhanced flammability may be adaptive for grasses via the maintenance of an open canopy and an increase in spatiotemporal opportunities for recruitment and regeneration. In addition, by burning intensely but briefly, high flammability may protect resprouting buds from lethal temperatures. Despite these potential benefits of high flammability to fire-prone grasses, variation in flammability among grass species, and how trait differences underpin this variation, remains unknown.By burning leaves and plant parts, we experimentally determined how five plant traits (biomass quantity, biomass density, biomass moisture content, leaf surface-area-to-volume ratio and leaf effective heat of combustion) combined to determine the three components of flammability (ignitability, sustainability and combustibility) at the leaf and plant scales in 25 grass species of fire-prone South African grasslands at a time of peak fire occurrence. The influence of evolutionary history on flammability was assessed based on a phylogeny built here for the study species.Grass species differed significantly in all components of flammability. Accounting for evolutionary history helped to explain patterns in leaf-scale combustibility and sustainability. The five measured plant traits predicted components of flammability, particularly leaf ignitability and plant combustibility in which 70% and 58% of variation, respectively, could be explained by a combination of the traits. Total above-ground biomass was a key driver of combustibility and sustainability with high biomass species burning more intensely and for longer, and producing the highest predicted fire spread rates. Moisture content was the main influence on ignitability, where species with higher moisture contents took longer to ignite and once alight burnt at a slower rate. Biomass density, leaf surface-area-to-volume ratio and leaf effective heat of combustion were weaker predictors of flammability components. Synthesis. We demonstrate that grass flammability is predicted from easily measurable plant functional traits and is influenced by evolutionary history with some components showing phylogenetic signal. Grasses are not homogenous fuels to fire. Rather, species differ in functional traits that in turn demonstrably influence flammability. This diversity is consistent with the idea that flammability may be an adaptive trait for grasses of fire-prone ecosystems.
Research support was provided by a Natural Environment Research Councilstudentship to K.J.S., Royal Society University Research FellowshipURF120119 to P.A.C. and URF120016 to G.H.T. and a European ResearchCouncil Starter Grant ERC-2013-StG-335891-ECOFLAM to C.M.B. Authorcontributions: K.J.S., G.H.T., B.S.R., C.M.B., C.E.R.L. and C.P.O. designedthe study. K.J.S., B.S.R. and P.A.C. generated the data. K.J.S., P.A.C., B.S.R.,G.H.T. and C.P.O. analysed the data. K.J.S. wrote the manuscript with the helpof all the authors. We thank Tony Palmer, Claire Adams and Nosipho Plaatjiefor their support in the laboratory and ﬁeld, Albert Phillimore for assistancewith the MCMCglmm analyses and James Simpson for his help with graphics.We also thank Hans Cornelissen and two anonymous referees for their con-structive comments on the manuscript.
This is the author accepted manuscript. The final version is available from Wiley via http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.12503. This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Vol. 104, pp. 138 - 148
PubMed Central ID