Landscape variation in plant leaf flammability is driven by leaf traits responding to environmental gradients:

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Ecosphere, 2018, 9 (2)
Issue Date:
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© 2018 Krix and Murray. Landscape differences in environmental conditions select for divergences among plant species in strategically important leaf traits such as leaf mass per area (LMA) and leaf area (LA). Interspecific variation in some of these same leaf traits has been associated to varying degrees with differences among species in leaf flammability, including the attributes ignitibility, sustainability, and combustibility. Yet, how environmentally selected variation in leaf traits drives variation in leaf flammability at landscape scales remains largely unknown. Here, we compared leaf traits and flammability attributes between species of sheltered forest vegetation (low light, moist habitat) and plant species of exposed woodland vegetation (high light, dry habitat) in a fire-prone landscape of south-eastern Australia. We found that leaves of sheltered forest species were significantly more flammable via both higher ignitibility and combustibility compared with exposed woodland species. These significant differences in leaf ignitibility and combustibility were underpinned by sheltered forest species having leaves with significantly larger LA and lower LMA compared with exposed woodland species. Further, multiple regression analyses revealed that both LA and LMA were significantly and uniquely related to faster time to ignition (TTI; ignitibility) and higher mean mass loss rate (combustibility). Most notably, although significantly higher fuel moisture content (FMC) of leaves of sheltered forest species significantly lengthened TTI, the lower LMA of these species played a more critical role in reducing TTI, with low LMA explaining more unique variation (partial r2 = 0.78) in high leaf ignitibility than low FMC (partial r2 = 0.49). Our findings provide the first evidence that landscape-scale variation in leaf flammability is tightly coordinated with the primary strategic response of the leaf traits LMA and LA to an environmental gradient. Furthermore, projections for increasing wildfire frequency and intensity in the region will likely allow wildfires to overcome the once protective nature provided by topography to sheltered forest vegetation, which means that higher leaf flammability in sheltered forest species has the potential to exacerbate the effects of changing weather conditions to place sheltered forest habitat, their plants, and their animals, at even higher risk of catastrophic wildfire.
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