Alternative pathways to landscape transformation: Invasive grasses, burn severity and fire frequency in arid ecosystems

Journal of Ecology
By:  and 



  1. Arid ecosystems are often vulnerable to transformation to invasive-dominated states following fire, but data on persistence of these states are sparse. The grass/fire cycle is a feedback process between invasive annual grasses and fire frequency that often leads to the formation of alternative vegetation states dominated by the invasive grasses. However, other components of fire regimes, such as burn severity, also have the potential to produce long-term vegetation transformations. Our goal was to evaluate the influence of both fire frequency and burn severity on the transformation of woody-dominated communities to communities dominated by invasive grasses in major elevation zones of the Mojave Desert of western North America.
  2. We used a chronosequence design to collect data on herbaceous and woody cover at 229 unburned reference plots and 578 plots that burned between 1972 and 2010. We stratified the plots by elevation zone (low, mid, high), fire frequency (1–3 times) and years post-fire (YPF; 1–5, 6–10, 11–20 and 21–40 YPF). Burn severity for each plot was estimated by the difference normalized burn ratio.
  3. We identified two broad post-fire successional pathways. One was an outcome of fire frequency, resulting in a strong potential transformation via the grass/fire cycle. The second pathway was driven by burn severity, the critical aspect being that long-term transformation of a community could occur from just one fire in areas that burned at high or sometimes moderate severity. Dominance by invasive grasses was most likely to occur in low-and high-elevation communities; cover of native herbaceous species was often greater than that of invasive grasses in the mid-elevation zone.
  4. Synthesis. Invasive grasses can dominate a site that burned only one time in many decades at high severity, or a site that burned at low severity but multiple times in the same time period. However, high burn severity may predispose areas to more frequent fire because they have relatively high cover of invasive annual grass, suggesting burn severity and fire frequency have both independent and synergistic effects. Resilience in vegetation structure following fire in many arid communities may be limited to a narrow window of low burn severity in areas that have not burned in many decades.
Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Alternative pathways to landscape transformation: Invasive grasses, burn severity and fire frequency in arid ecosystems
Series title Journal of Ecology
DOI 10.1111/1365-2745.12863
Volume 105
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher British Ecological Society
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description 13 p.
First page 1521
Last page 1533
Country United States
Other Geospatial Mojave Desert
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