Does prescribed burning result in biotic homogenization of coastal heathlands?



Biotic homogenization due to replacement of native biodiversity by widespread generalist species has been demonstrated in a number of ecosystems and taxonomic groups worldwide, causing growing conservation concern. Human disturbance is a key driver of biotic homogenization, suggesting potential conservation challenges in seminatural ecosystems, where anthropogenic disturbances such as grazing and burning are necessary for maintaining ecological dynamics and functioning. We test whether prescribed burning results in biotic homogenization in the coastal heathlands of north-western Europe, a seminatural landscape where extensive grazing and burning has constituted the traditional land-use practice over the past 6000 years. We compare the beta-diversity before and after fire at three ecological scales: within local vegetation patches, between wet and dry heathland patches within landscapes, and along a 470 km bioclimatic gradient. Within local patches, we found no evidence of homogenization after fire; species richness increased, and the species that entered the burnt Calluna stands were not widespread specialists but native grasses and herbs characteristic of the heathland system. At the landscapes scale, we saw a weak homogenization as wet and dry heathland patches become more compositionally similar after fire. This was because of a decrease in habitat-specific species unique to either wet or dry habitats and postfire colonization by a set of heathland specialists that established in both habitat types. Along the bioclimatic gradient, species that increased after fire generally had more specific environmental requirements and narrower geographical distributions than the prefire flora, resulting in a biotic ‘heterogenisation’ after fire. Our study demonstrates that human disturbance does not necessarily cause biotic homogenization, but that continuation of traditional land-use practices can instead be crucial for the maintenance of the diversity and ecological function of a seminatural ecosystem. The species that established after prescribed burning were heathland specialists with relatively narrow geographical ranges.