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Natural disturbances and the physiognomy of pine savannas: A phenomenological model

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Question: The decline of the Pinus palustris ecosystems has resulted from anthropogenic influences, such as conversion to pine plantation forestry, agriculture and land development, all of which are closely related to increases in human populations. Other effects, however, have arisen from alterations in disturbance regimes that maintain the structure and function of these ecosystems. How have alterations of the disturbance regime altered the physiognomy of 'old-growth' stands, and what are the implications for ecosystem conservation and restoration?

Methods: In contrast to models that emphasize close interactions among the vertically complex strata, we develop a conceptual phenomenological model for the physiognomic structure of Pinus palustris stands. We relate two natural disturbances (tropical storms and fire) that affect different stages of the life cycle to different aspects of the physiognomic structure. We then compare overstorey stand structure and ground cover composition of two old-growth longleaf stands near the extremes of different composite disturbance regimes: the Wade Tract (frequent hurricanes and fire) and the Boyd Tract (infrequent hurricanes and long-term fire exclusion).

Results: We predict that tropical storms and fires have different effects on stand physiognomy. Tropical storms are periodic, and sometimes intense, whereas fires are more frequent and less intense. Hurricanes directly influence the overstorey via wind-caused damage and mortality, and indirectly influence the herb layer by altering the spatial distribution of shading and litter accumulation. Fire exerts direct effects on juvenile stages and indirect effects on the herb layer via fine fuel consumption and selective mortality of potential competitors of P. palustris juveniles. These differences in effects of disturbances can result in widely different physiognomies for P. palustris stands. Finally, some global climate change scenarios have suggested that changes may occur in tropical storm and fire regimes, altering frequency and severity. Such changes may greatly affect pine stands, and ultimately entire pine savanna ecosystems.

Conclusions: Our phenomenological model of disturbance regimes in Pinus palustris old-growth produces very different physiognomies for different disturbances regimes that reflect natural process and human management actions. This model can be used to derive restoration strategies for pine savannas that are linked to reinstitution of important ecological processes rather than specific physiognomic states.


Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2006-05-01

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