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The history of evolutionary fire ecology

August 9th, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments

Evolutionary fire ecology is a relatively young discipline. The idea that fire acts as an evolutionary force contributing to shaping species traits started a century ago, but has not been widely recognized until very recently. Among the first to realize this force include E.B. Paulon, R.D. Guthrie, and E.V. Komarek in animals, and W.L. Jepson, W.W. Hough, T.M. Harris, P.V. Wells and R.W. Mutch in plants (all earlier than 1970). Our recent paper [1] is a tribute to these researchers that were ahead of their time in their evolutionary thinking.

Since them, evolutionary fire ecology has percolated very slowly into the mainstream ecology and evolutionary biology; in fact, this topic is still seldom mentioned in textbooks of ecology or evolution. Currently, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that we cannot understand the biodiversity of our planet without considering the key evolutionary role of fire [2]. We also provide thoughts on future direction of this discipline.

Traits mentioned in the article as potential adaptive to fire-prone environments are [1]:

  • Traits that enhance survival
    Resprouting traits (plant survival): Root crown, Lignotuber, Woody rhizomes, Epicormic resprouting, Sunken stem buds, Smoke-induced nutrient translocation
    Stem survival: Thick (outer) bark, Reduced flammability
  • Traits that enhance reproduction and recruitment
    Heat-released dormancy, Smoke-released dormancy, Seed traits enhancing seed survival, Serotiny, Fire-stimulated flowering, Increased flammability (chemically or structurally), Precocity (ie early reproduction), Elaiosomes (ant-dispersal)

In our search for early researchers with an evolutionary view of fire [1], we may have missed some women and non-English speaker researchers; if so, we would appreciate feedback on such omissions.

Figure 1. Two of the manzanitas from Jepson (1916, Madroño 1:3-12): Arctostaphylos glandulosa (left) and Arctostaphylos nummularia (right). The former is an obligate resprouter (note the basal burl) and the latter is an obligate seeder (note the even-aged cohort). Manzanitas were among the first plants that made scientists think about the role of fire in plant evolution.

[1] Pausas JG & Keeley JE. 2023. Evolutionary fire ecology: an historical account and future directions. BioScience. [doi | pdf]

[2] Keeley JE & Pausas JG. 2022. Evolutionary ecology of fire. Ann Rev Ecol, Evol, Syst 53: 203-225. [doi |eprint | pdf]

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