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What limits the spread of fire-dependent vegetation? Evidence from geographic variation of serotiny in a New Zealand shrub


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Aim  To determine the geographical variation in serotiny in a common New Zealand shrub as a contemporary indicator of past fire regimes. The distribution of serotiny could then be used to explore factors limiting the spread of fire-dependent vegetation.

Location  South Island, New Zealand.

Methods  Serotiny was assessed as the proportion of closed capsules on a shoot of standard stem diameter for 5–35 plants in 45 widely scattered populations of Leptospermum scoparium. Site characteristics, including locality, altitude, rainfall, habitat type and minimum burnable area were recorded at sampling sites.

Results  Serotiny was distributed bimodally within and among populations with capsules either mostly closed or mostly open. There was considerable geographical variation in capsule behaviour, most of which we attribute to variation in fire history. In wetlands and other sites unsuitable for forest growth, populations were all serotinous above a minimum area of 30 km2 and nonserotinous below this threshold. In grassy habitats in the drier eastern areas, most populations were serotinous. The nonserotinous exceptions occurred in areas thought to have been cleared of forests by Polynesian settlers before the arrival of Europeans or in areas with numerous barriers to fire in the form of large rivers, floodplains, glaciers and barren mountain tops.

Conclusions  We suggest that serotiny in L. scoparium is a reflection of a long history of fire in the South Island. As such, it provides a contemporary signature of a past fire regime. Landscape barriers to the spread of fire were major obstacles limiting the spread of serotiny and associated fire-dependent vegetation. Rivers, lakes, glaciers, and sparsely vegetated floodplains prevented the spread of fire in high rainfall regions more than the lack of dry weather. People, by igniting fires in small open areas seldom struck by lightning, could radically increase the importance of fire on islands.