Fire in woodland ecosystems

Fire in woodland ecosystems

Many natural ecosystems are periodically exposed to fire.  After a fire, there is often reduced competition and increased nutrient availability (from ash etc.).  The plants and flowers that grow after a fire are visited more often by pollinators, such as bees and other insects.  This can result in increased production of fruits and seeds. Bushfires have been part of certain australian ecosystems for thousands of years and some native species are ‘fire adapted’.  They have come to 'rely' on fires as a means of reproduction and / or  dispersal.

Whilst no one fire can be attributed to climate change alone, rising temperatures and aridity, lengthening of the ‘fire season’, combined with bursts of extreme ‘fire weather’, all combine to suggest climate change is implicated. As the frequency of fires increases, the possible benefits of fire to such ecosystems / species are being lost.

Fire can help with the physical dispersal of seeds from the parent plant.  In some parts of the world, such as South Africa and Australia, fire and / or smoke can be the stimulus for seed dispersal and subsequent germination.  Plants such as some species of Protea, Banksia, certain members of the myrtle family (e.g. some Eucalypts), and some Pines and Sequoias 'make use' of fire to disperse their seeds. Seed dispersal involving fire is termed serotiny. 

Many of these plants produce woody fruits or cones in which the seeds are held.  The mechanism underlying seed release varies but can be due to a resin that ‘seals’ the seeds inside the fruit or cone.  The resin ‘melts’ / liquefies on exposure to heat releasing the seed or there may be a structure called a seed separator (as in Banksia).  Serotinous conifers (like lodgepole pine), have mature cones in which the cone scales are naturally sealed shut with resin.   Most of the seeds stay in the canopy until the cones reach 122-140o F  (i.e 50 to 60oC).  At these temperatures, heat / fire  melts the resin and  the cone scales open to expose the seed.

The seed can then drop or drift to a burned but cooling ash-rich soil bed. The seeds do well on the burnt soil available to them as the site offers reduced competition, more light, warmth plus the nutrients from the burning of leaves and litter.  Some species align their germination to immediate post-fire conditions - stimulated by chemicals present in the smoke.  The organic compounds karrikins,  products of the degradation of cellulose are  a germination ‘cue’ for some species.  Karrikins are thought to be present on the soil surface after a fire.  When it rains,  the karrikins are 'washed' into the soil, and seeds present in the soil seed bank are then stimulated to germinate.

Thanks to Steve Sangster and John Cameron for images of woodland fire.


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