Fire in the tropical gallery forests of Belize



ABSTRACT. Historical records of burning, field observations, and a manipulation experiment were used to evaluate the extent and impact of fire in a system of gallery forests in the Mountain Pine Ridge savanna, Belize. The outer boundaries of gallery forests are fire-prone zones, but fires rarely intrude into these forests. This is attributed to the existence of fire-tolerant trees in the outer zone, which preserve a forest interior of low flammability. Occasional fire incursions are patchily distributed and partially inhibited by slope convexities. Intrusions consume litter and root mats and destroy seedlings and saplings, but create a wide variety of subsequent light regimes depending upon the degree of canopy destruction. At most sites, partial canopy cover persists and seedlings of a subset of forest tree species establish preferentially. Early survivorship of these seedlings is comparable to those established in undamaged forest. Where canopy opening is severe, a secondary succession is initiated, with large numbers of herbaceous plants deriving from the seed bank. Gallery forests contain core zones into which fire very rarely intrudes, and peripheral zones that experience fire incursions that are patchily distributed in space and time. In the latter zones fire incursions play a role comparable to that of canopy gaps in continuous forests, but also create a unique class of micro-habitats to which a subset of tree species is specialized. The fire regime over the recent past in this gallery forest system appears to have had an enriching, rather than a depauperizing, effect on the forest communities, and such systems represent plausible refugia for forest species in fire-prone landscapes.