Fire resistance of tree species explains gallery forest community composition

TitleFire resistance of tree species explains gallery forest community composition
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsVanderweide, B, Hartnett, DC
JournalForest Ecology and Management
Pagination1530 -1538
Accession NumberKNZ001414
KeywordsBark, Fire resistance, Forest composition, gallery forest, Konza Prairie

Fire, climatic variability, and grazing by large herbivores have historically limited woody vegetation in the tallgrass prairie region of North America to gallery forests in protected areas along rivers and streams. Fire, in particular, has been a strong selective pressure against woody vegetation. Consequently, we expect that dominant tree species in these forests have developed mechanisms for tolerating periodic surface fires. Susceptibility of trees to fire damage depends in part on key properties of bark which influence heat transfer to the vascular cambium, including thickness, density, and moisture content. An historical (1983) survey of Konza Prairie Biological Station in northeast Kansas, USA indicated that gallery forests were co-dominated by Quercus macrocarpa and Quercus muehlenbergii, while Celtis occidentalis occurred as an important sub-dominant species. Populus deltoides, Gleditsia triacanthos, and Juniperus virginiana were relatively uncommon. To test the hypothesis that historically dominant gallery forest tree species are more resistant to fire damage than uncommon species, fire was applied to the bark of 10 individuals of each of these six species under conditions mimicking surface fires (400 °C for 120 s). Maximum temperature at the vascular cambium, bark thickness, bark moisture content, and bark density were measured. Trees were considered fire-resistant if the vascular cambium temperature remained below the thermal cell death threshold, 60 °C, throughout the treatment. Using logistic regression, bark thickness was found to be a significant predictor of lethal cambium temperatures (P = 0.002), while neither bark density nor moisture content were significantly related to lethal cambium temperature (P = 0.279 and P = 0.131, respectively). Across species, a minimum bark thickness of approximately 8.6 mm was necessary to maintain the vascular cambium temperature below 60 °C. Trees that produce thick bark quickly in juvenile size classes (P. deltoides, Q. macrocarpa, and Q. muehlenbergii) experienced lower temperatures at the vascular cambium than those which do not develop thick bark with increasing diameter (C. occidentalis, G. triacanthos, and J. virginiana). Ranking these tree species by either the DBH or age needed to develop the minimum protective bark thickness largely agreed with ranking based on historical relative importance. As fire frequency and intensity decrease in remnant tallgrass prairie of North America as a result of habitat fragmentation, fire suppression, and changing land management, fire-sensitive species may increase in relative importance in gallery forests because of increased juvenile survival.