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The ecology of bark thickness

December 1st, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Bark is a vital and very visible part of woody plants, yet the functional and evolutionary ecology of the bark is still poorly understood. In a recent article I have studied one of the bark properties: bark thickness [1]. Bark thickness is very variable among woody plants and fire is a key factor selecting for a thick bark. This is because barks are very good heat insulators and under low intensity fires, small differences in bark thickness provides a great increase in the stem protection and survival. Consequently, at the global scale, an important proportion of the variability in bark thickness should be explained by the variability in fire regimes. In this paper I provide evidences supporting the role of fire regime in shaping bark thickness (in conjunction with other plant traits) on a global scale [1].

Forest environments with very frequent (and low intensity) understory fires select for trees with thick bark at the base of the bole. In some savannas, trees do not have specially thick barks as they tend to growth quickly to escape the height affected by grass fires. Savannas living in poor soils may not be able to growth quickly and thus trees can only survive if they have a very thick bark in the whole plant (including in the thin branches). In Mediterranean ecosystems, fires are less frequent than in savannas, and there is time for the accumulation of fine woody biomass. Consequently, fires burns intensely (crown fires) and thus small differences in bark thickness do not increase stem survival; in such conditions, most species have relatively thin barks. In wet tropical forests, tree barks are very thin because fire are very rare and thus a thick bark is not advantageous. In very arid ecosystems, fuels are too sparse for fire spread, and thus the observed variability in bark thickness is related to other factors like a response to water stress. In conclusion, fire regimes can explain a large proportion of the variability of bark thickness at the global scale, and thus this trait varies across ecosystems in a predictable manner.

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Figure: Examples of trees with thick bark: A. Myrcia bella (Myrtaceae, Brazil); B. Quercus suber (Fagaceae, Mediterranean Basin), in the cover of the book ‘Cork oak Woodlands on the Edge’ [2]; C: Eremanthus seidelii (Asteraceae, Brazil); and D: Enterolobium gummiferum (Fabaceae), small top branch. Photos from [1] and [2].

References

[1] Pausas, J.G. 2015. Bark thickness and fire regime. Functional Ecology   [doi | pdf | suppl.]

[2] Aronson J., Pereira J.S., Pausas J.G. (eds). 2009. Cork Oak Woodlands on the Edge: conservation, adaptive management, and restoration. Island Press, Washington DC. 315 pp. [The book]

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