Suites of fire-adapted traits of oaks in the Southeastern USA: Multiple strategies for persistence

J. Morgan Varner, Jeffrey M. Kane, J. Kevin Hiers, Jesse K. Kreye, Joseph W. Veldman

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39 Scopus citations


Fire is integral to the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems of the southeastern USA and is a strong selective force on plant species. Among woody plants, oak species (Quercus spp. L) have diverse life history traits that appear to reflect their evolution in this fire-prone region. Oaks also occur across wide gradients of fire frequency and intensity, from annually burned savannas to fire-protected forests. As such, oak functional traits are presumed to reflect adaptations to acquire limited resources (i.e., “physiological traits”) or survive environmental stress (i.e., “protective traits”). Oak functional traits may also influence fire regimes (i.e., via “flammability traits”) by altering fire behavior through effects on fuels and their combustion. We synthesized evidence from ecophysiological measurements, laboratory burning and drying experiments, and field experiments to determine the suites of functional traits that reflect fire adaptive strategies in eight Southeastern oaks for which abundant data were available. We found strong correlations among Principal Components Analysis axes for flammability (litter burning and drying), protective (bark and wound responses), and physiological (growth) traits. The eight oaks clustered into three strategies: 1) pyrophytic species that produce highly flammable leaf litter, accrue thick bark rapidly, close wounds rapidly, and grow slowly; 2) mesophytic species that produce low flammability litter, have thin bark, and are fast growing; and 3) fire-avoider species with a mixture of traits from the two extremes. This synthesis clarifies the relative pyrophily of Southeastern oaks and suggests how suites of fire-related traits influence fire regimes and species habitat preferences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)48-64
Number of pages17
JournalFire Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Forestry
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)


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