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Response of plant species and life form diversity to variable fire histories and biomass in the jarrah forest of south-west Australia


Present address: Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University, 195 Marsteller Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907, USA (Email:


Frequent fires reduce the abundance of woody plant species and favour herbaceous species. Plant species richness also tends to increase with decreasing vegetation biomass and cover due to reduced competition for light. We assessed the influence of variable fire histories and site biomass on the following diversity measures: woody and herbaceous species richness, overall species richness and evenness, and life form evenness (i.e. the relative abundance or dominance among six herbaceous and six woody plant life forms), across 16 mixed jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) and marri (Corymbia calophylla) forest stands in south-west Australia. Fire frequency was defined as the total number of fires over a 30-year period. Overall species richness and species evenness did not vary with fire frequency or biomass. However, there were more herbaceous species (particularly rushes, geophytes and herbs) where there were fewer shrubs and low biomass, suggesting that more herbaceous species coexist where dominance by shrubs is low. Frequently burnt plots also had lower number and abundance of shrub species. Life form evenness was also higher at both high fire frequency and low biomass sites. These results suggest that the impact of fire frequency and biomass on vegetation composition is mediated by local interactions among different life forms rather than among individual species. Our results demonstrate that measuring the variation in the relative diversity of different woody and herbaceous life forms is crucial to understanding the compositional response of forests and other structurally complex vegetation communities to changes in disturbance regime such as increased fire frequency.