Drivers of observed biotic homogenization in pine barrens of central Wisconsin


  • Corresponding Editor: G. A. Fox


Fire suppression throughout the 20th century greatly altered plant communities in fire-dominated systems across North America. Our ability to assess these effects over the long term, however, is handicapped by the paucity of baseline data. Here, we used detailed baseline data from the 1950s to track changes in the over- and understory composition of pine-barrens vegetation growing on sandy, glacial lake-bed sediments in central Wisconsin. We expected fire suppression to favor succession to closed-canopy conditions, leading to decreases in shade-intolerant and fire-adapted species and consequent reductions in alpha and gamma diversity. We also expected beta diversity to decline due to increases in shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive, and exotic species. In fact, fire suppression has greatly altered the structure and composition of these pine-barrens communities over the past 54 years. Woody, wind-pollinated, and shade-tolerant species all increased in richness and abundance, as expected, with succession following fire suppression. Contrary to expectations, local and regional species richness increased by 12% and 26%, respectively, while Shannon beta diversity declined 24.1%. Increases in canopy coverage and number of native species appear to have driven this biotic homogenization. In contrast, increases in exotic species in our study did not promote biotic homogenization, reflecting their relative rarity across sites. Our findings highlight the key role fire plays in shaping the assembly of these pine-barrens communities.