Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ecosytem Engineering and Fire Ecology, Part 3

The closing paragraph of ‘Nature, Red in Tooth and Flame Part-2’ mentioned how extrinsic factors in the environment, such as the presence of increased atmospheric oxygen and an abundance of herbaceous plants to serve as fuel, collectively worked to generate frequent and intense wildfires during the Pennsylvanian Period approximately 300 million years ago. It was the presence of these Carboniferous wildfires that positively selected fire-tolerant gymnosperm species for continued development, and initiated their adaptive radiation towards the representative pine trees that occupy the modern-day savannas in the southeastern United States. It is within contemporary savannas that the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and the southern slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. densa) express their fiery ancestry; however, the fire ecology observable in these natural communities isn’t limited to wildfires born of purely extrinsic factors. Through, evolution the longleaf and slash pines have developed the ability to intrinsically influence the movement of fire, and they have learned to use this powerful tool as an instrument for customized ecosystem engineering.

During the description of savanna communities in Part-2, it was detailed that the canopies of these systems exist in an open condition that allows for ample access to sunlight by a diverse range of groundcover plants. Ample sunlight, water and soil nutrients can all be found in savannas. So, considering the occurrence of these botanical prerequisites, compounded with the highly competitive, almost war-like, tendencies of nature (as elaborately described in Part-1), one might wonder why trees from the hammocks don’t advance to occupy the promising and resource-rich savannas… The reason for the limited progress of hammock trees in moving to the savannas is that invasions are tightly controlled by the few trees already inhabiting the systems – the few trees usually being longleaf and slash pine.

An open canopy is a characteristic physiognomy of savannas precisely because the ground gaining charge of closed-canopy trees is impeded by the heirs of the Carboniferous gymnosperms. Said differently, the trials-by-fire endured by the antecedents of the modern-day conifers have shaped the phenotypes of the savanna-defending longleaf and southern slash pines. Furthermore, the phenotypes shown by the longleaf and slash pine reach outward to encompass the savanna as a whole, where these phenotypes serve as catalysts for engineering ecosystem towards one purpose – making more pine trees.

The longleaf and southern slash pine exhibit a host of morphological features that facilitate their continued manipulation of fire. For instance, both of these trees have thickly armored plates of bark on the exterior of their trunks; like fire-retardant shields, the plates guard the tree's interrior tissues against excessive heat and all but the most intense of wildfires. Similarly, the undifferentiated cells (meristematic cells) found within the trees, the ones that make-up the growth tissue found in meristems, are safeguard by a casing of heat resistant scales. And, as opposed to a pattern of wide lateral spreading, the roots of the slash and longleaf trees penetrate perpendicularly downward, where they are sheltered from harsh surficial temperatures. These are but a small number of the morphological – anatomical – traits displayed by the fire-scaping pines; their reproduction and growth habits give additional clues as to their natural history.

The reproductive cycle of the longleaf and southern slash pine include strategies that take into account the recurring spring fires described in Post-2; by germinating in the fall and occasionally producing periodic mast crops, young pines are afforded several months of growth before the first ravages of wildfire arrive. In spite of the head start gained through fall germination, the longleaf and slash pine don’t approach growth from a mere lackadaisical standpoint, quite the contrary, both trees posses the ability to quickly establish themselves. Just as the most successful plants of a closed canopy hammock battling for access to solar radiation (see the ‘competition for sunlight’ example provided in Part-1), the savanna pine trees – in addition to a ‘fire gene’ – also hold in their genetic arsenal a ‘rapid growth gene.’ Slash pine, for instance, has a genetic compliment that permits the tree to take advantage of every opportunity to seize real estate; once germinated, it rapidly shoots upward expressing secondary needles in less than six month’s time, and by the time it is two-years old, it is able to survive a wildfire of ‘average' intensity.

The above characteristics depict but a few of the intrinsic phenotypes that improve the survivability and reproduction of the savanna dwelling pines in the presence of fire; but what is truly remarkable is the trees’ ability to channel fire directly – the trees’ ability to shape their ecosystem through offensive tactics.

In addition to the defensive phenotypes of the savanna pines, the chemistry of their leaves (i.e. pine needles) have undergone adaptation such that while on the tree, the leaves produce flame resistant chemicals, but when the leaves are shed, their chemical consistency changes to achieve an altogether different effect - they become flammable and easily ignited. As the leaves are shed from branches, they fall to the ground where they accumulate around the circumference of the trees. The piled pine needles are composed of cellulose-laden fibers, which unlike the fire-resistant lignin that evolved during the Paleozoic, serve as excellent fuel for fires. So when on the tree, the pine needles are similar to the armored plates found on the trunks, they help defend against tissue damage when exposed to wildfire; but, in the absence of recurrent fire, the leaves are quickly dropped and their chemistry changes to promote fire. Moreover, pine leaves aren’t the only fire stoking property of the savanna pines. The very structure of the pine’s thin and supra-numerous branches can facilitate the spreading of fire (horizontally and vertically) through increasing the surface area of exposed tissues to flame. And, the flammable hydrocarbons produced in the plant’s resins can incite wildfires or encourage lightening strikes to take hold (for example, the terpenes produced by the conifers in question; think ‘turpentine’).

Though it may initially seem to be counterproductive, or a hindrance to survival, through promoting fires the savanna pines obtain benefits that actually enhance inclusive fitness….

[Continue HERE, PART-4.]

Beckage, B., Platt, W., & Gross, L. (2009). Vegetation, Fire, and Feedbacks: A Disturbance‐Mediated Model of Savannas The American Naturalist, 174 (6), 805-818 DOI: 10.1086/648458

Stevens, J., & Beckage, B. (2009). Fire feedbacks facilitate invasion of pine savannas by Brazilian pepper New Phytologist, 184 (2), 365-375 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.02965.x

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