Toward a mechanism for eastern North American forest mesophication: differential litter drying across 17 species


  • Corresponding Editor: B. P. Wilcox


Long-term fire exclusion has altered ecological function in many forested ecosystems in North America. The invasion of fire-sensitive tree species into formerly pyrogenic upland forests in the southeastern United States has resulted in dramatic shifts in surface fuels that have been hypothesized to cause reductions in plant community flammability. The mechanism for the reduced flammability or “mesophication” has lacked empirical study. Here we evaluate a potential mechanism of reduced flammability by quantifying moisture retention (response time and initial moisture capacity) of foliar litter beds from 17 southeastern tree species spanning a wide range of fire tolerance. A k-means cluster analysis resulted in four species groups: a rapidly drying cluster of eight species; a five-species group that absorbed little water but desorbed slowly; a two-species group that absorbed substantial moisture but desorbed rapidly; and a two-species cluster that absorbed substantial moisture and dried slowly. Fire-sensitive species were segregated into the slow moisture loss clusters while fire-tolerant species tended to cluster in the rapid drying groups. Principal-components analysis indicated that several leaf characteristics correlated with absorption capacity and drying rates. Thin-leaved species with high surface area : volume absorbed the greatest moisture content, while those with large, curling leaves had the fastest drying rates. The dramatic shifts in litter fuels as a result of invasion by fire-sensitive species generate a positive feedback that reduce the windows of ignition, thereby facilitating the survival, persistence, and continued invasion of fire-sensitive species in the uplands of the southeastern United States.