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Microbes, herbivores, and wildfires

Plants are the largest biomass component of most terrestrial ecosystems, and litter decomposition is considered the dominant process by which nutrients return to plants. In a recent paper [1] we show that in terrestrial ecosystems, there are three major pathways by which plant biomass is degraded into forms that release nutrients again available to plants: microbial decomposition; vertebrate herbivory; and wildfires. These processes act at different spatial and temporal scales, have different niches, and generates different ecological and evolutionary feedbacks. The three processes can occur in a given ecosystem (competing for the same resource, biomass), but the relative importance of each varies with the micro- and macro-environmental conditions (see Figure below).

Wildfires and herbivory are two powerful biomass consumers; they generate feedback processes that maintain vegetation at states of lower biomass than would be expected from the physical environmental conditions (alternative vegetation states [2]). In addition, wildfires and herbivory also select for light-loving species with a set of adaptive traits to persist under these consumers [3,4]. That is, both herbivory and fire can influence the mix and attributes of plant species, while the mix and attributes of plants also influence the fire and grazing regimes. These ecological and evolutionary feedbacks make fire and herbivory distinct from other abiotic disturbances such as cyclones, landslides, avalanches, volcanoes, or floods, where plants may respond – but the disturbance will not change in response to these plant responses. That is, wildfires, herbivory, and microbial decomposition can be viewed as biotic processes that structure our ecosystems and the biosphere, at different temporal and spatial scales.

This holistic view in which microbes, herbivores, and wildfires play a joint role in the functioning of ecosystems contributes to a better understanding of the diversity of mechanisms regulating the biosphere.

Figure: Plant biomass and vegetation structure in terrestrial ecosystems are determined by three feedback processes: vertebrate herbivory (H), microbial decomposition (D), and wildfires (W). These three processes also interact with each other (e.g., competition for biomass; but positive interactions also exist). Relative importance of each of the three ecosystem pathways varies in the environmental space (niche), here defined by the water availability and soil fertility. Illustration by Dharmaberen Studio. From [1].

References

[1] Pausas J.G. & Bond W.J. 2020. On the three major recycling pathways in terrestrial ecosystems. Trends Ecol. & Evol. [doi | pdf]

[2] Pausas J.G. & Bond W.J. 2020. Alternative biome states in terrestrial ecosystems. Trends Plant Sci. 25: 250-263. [doi | sciencedirect | cell | pdf]

[3] Keeley J.E., Bond W.J., Bradstock R.A., Pausas J.G. & Rundel P.W. 2012. Fire in Mediterranean Ecosystems: Ecology, Evolution and Management. Cambridge University Press. [the book]  

[4] Bond, W. J. 2019. Open Ecosystems: Ecology and Evolution Beyond the Forest Edge. Oxford University Press.

 

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