Leaf traits and litter flammability: evidence for non-additive mixture effects in a temperate forest


Correspondence author. E-mail: rita.quinones-magalhaes@ttu.edu


1. Although it is recognized that plant species vary in their flammability, we currently lack a mechanistic understanding of how plant traits influence fire and how litter mixtures behave in a fire. As modified fire regimes and climate change shift the species composition of communities, a mechanistic perspective is especially important to understand and predict fire in potentially novel plant communities. This work addresses three questions: (i) How do eight species common in Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer forest differ in their litter flammability? (ii) What leaf traits are associated with various flammability components? and (iii) Do individual species measurements predict multi-species combinations, or are there non-additive effects?

2. Leaf litter was collected in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California, from eight dominant tree species in mixed-conifer forest. Controlled flammability tests were performed on reconstructed monospecific litter beds and on mixed litter beds, using litter from three species. We tested for non-additive effects in multi-species mixtures using the weighted mean of single-species measures for each flammability component as a null expectation for each mixture; departures from this null indicated non-additive effects.

3. Most flammability components fell within two major axes of variation, one relating to total heat release and another to fire intensity. The eight species differed significantly in all flammability components, with large-leaved species creating litter that burned with higher intensity.

4. Non-additive species mixture effects are common in this system. Flammability tends to be driven by the most flammable component of the mixture.

5.Synthesis. We have demonstrated positive non-additive effects in mixtures of leaf litter. The most flammable constituent species of a mixture has disproportionate effects on the fire environment faced by the entire community. This could potentially influence community assembly and alter the selective environment faced by co-occurring species.