Postfire response of flood-regenerating riparian vegetation in a semi-arid landscape

Neil E Pettit, Robert J Naiman
Ecology 2007, 88 (8): 2094-104
Piles of large wood (LW) deposited by major floods in river corridors can interact with naturally occurring wildfires from uplands to impact the regeneration of riparian vegetation. This study examines the spatial and short-term temporal response of riparian vegetation and soil nutrients to fire along the Sabie River, South Africa, with special emphasis on the effects of burned LW piles. At the study site there were 112 species of plants recorded with 28% of species restricted to the burned plots. As expected, vegetation cover was significantly lower in burned plots as compared with the unburned plots 12 months postfire. There was a significant influence of LW on species richness with fewer species recorded in the LW plots. For both fire and LW treatments, plant cover showed a significant change over three years. After an initial increase from 12 to 24 months (postfire) there was a decline in plant cover after 36 months. Species community composition was distinctly different between burned and unburned plots 12 months postfire, and the presence of LW affected species composition for burned plots but not for unburned ones. Time series ordination of LW plots highlighted the changes in species composition over the three years of sampling. Of trees with accumulations of LW within 5 m of their base, 48% had been killed by fire as compared to only 4% with no LW accumulations in close proximity. Soil-available P was significantly higher in the burned plots and even higher with burned LW while there were no effects on soil total N. There was also a significant positive trend between available P in soils and plant vegetation cover. Soil-exchangeable K was also significantly higher and total C significantly lower in the burned and LW plots. Burned plots also had significantly higher soil electrical conductivity (EC) and soil pH. The patchy nature of the studied fire, whose complexity is exacerbated by the distribution of flood deposited LW, acted to create a mosaic of alternate successional states as the riparian community recovers from flooding and the subsequent fire. We suspect that the resultant heterogeneity will increase ecosystem resilience by providing flexibility in the form of more options for a system response to subsequent disturbances.

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