Which traits determine shifts in the abundance of tree species in a fire-prone savanna?


Correspondence author. E-mail: higgins@em.uni-frankfurt.de


  1. Fire is a process that shapes the structure and composition of vegetation in many regions. Species in these regions have presumably evolved life-history strategies that allow success in fire-prone environments.
  2. In this study, we examine the extent to which the ecological success of savanna trees is determined by traits that enhance the capacity to tolerate fire and/or traits indicative of an ecophysiological capacity for rapid growth. We define ecological success as the relative change in stem density over the course of a long-term (circa 40 year) fire experiment conducted in the Kruger National Park, South Africa.
  3. We first examine the extent to which differences in the capacity of trees to tolerate fire can be explained by allometries describing bark traits and tree size. We then examine whether these differences in fire tolerance traits can explain observed shifts in abundance.
  4. We show that species differ in their topkill responses (probability of above-ground mortality) and that these differences are explained in part by differences in bark moisture content and the allometry between height and diameter. Contrary to previous studies, we find no evidence that bark thickness is important in explaining susceptibility to topkill.
  5. Synthesis. Fire tolerance traits did explain a significant component of the variance in observed shifts in the abundance of tree species. However, traits related to the carbon economy of photosynthesis were also important.