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Scaling up the diversity-resilience relationship with trait databases and remote sensing data: the recovery of productivity after wildfire

Marko J. Spasojevic, Christie A. Bahlai, Bethany A. Bradley, Bradley J. Butterfield, Mao-Ning Tuanmu, Seeta Sistla, Ruscena Wiederholt, Katharine N. Suding

Understanding the mechanisms underlying ecosystem resilience – why some systems have an irreversible response to disturbances while others recover – is critical for conserving biodiversity and ecosystem function in the face of global change. Despite the widespread acceptance of a positive relationship between biodiversity and resilience, empirical evidence for this relationship remains fairly limited in scope and localized in scale. Assessing resilience at the large landscape and regional scales most relevant to land management and conservation practices has been limited by the ability to measure both diversity and resilience over large spatial scales. Here, we combined tools used in large-scale studies of biodiversity (remote sensing and trait databases) with theoretical advances developed from small-scale experiments to ask whether the functional diversity within a range of woodland and forest ecosystems influences the recovery of productivity after wildfires across the four-corner region of the United States. We additionally asked how environmental variation (topography, macroclimate) across this geographic region influences such resilience, either directly or indirectly via changes in functional diversity. Using path analysis, we found that functional diversity in regeneration traits (fire tolerance, fire resistance, resprout ability) was a stronger predictor of the recovery of productivity after wildfire than the functional diversity of seed mass or species richness. Moreover, slope, elevation, and aspect either directly or indirectly influenced the recovery of productivity, likely via their effect on microclimate, while macroclimate had no direct or indirect effects. Our study provides some of the first direct empirical evidence for functional diversity increasing resilience at large spatial scales. Our approach highlights the power of combining theory based on local-scale studies with tools used in studies at large spatial scales and trait databases to understand pressing environmental issues.

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Discussion. [...] Although small-scale studies support the importance of functional diversity for resilience [...], our study is the first to scale up this relationship to the large spatial scales most relevant to land managers and conservation practitioners. Overall, we found that functional diversity in traits associated with fire tolerance/resistance was a better predictor of how quickly vegetation productivity recovered following wildfire than species richness or the functional diversity of seed mass. Our results provide novel support that high functional dispersion in traits associated with fire tolerance/resistance may contribute to the recovery of productivity after wildfire across a wide range of ecosystems from cold desert woodlands to forested mountains [...].
We found that communities with high functional dispersion and low functional richness in traits associated with fire tolerance/resistance recovered more quickly from wildfire [...]. Plant species have many adaptations to fire [...], and our results suggest that to recover productivity after a wildfire the breadth of the overall trait space (high functional richness) is less important than having species with diverse, but not necessarily broadly different, strategies (high functional dispersion). For example, our results suggest that managers could build ecosystems more resilient to fire by restoring species with a diversity of just a few strategies (e.g., just resprout ability and fire tolerance) rather than focusing on including all possible strategies (e.g., fire tolerance, fire resistance, and resprout ability). While our results suggest a slightly more nuanced version of the functional diversity–resilience relationship, the basic principle remains the same – that some degree of increased functional diversity (functional dispersion in our case) promotes ecosystem resilience. [...]


Global Change Biology, Vol. 22, No. 4. (April 2016), pp. 1421-1432, https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.13174 
Key: INRMM:14435266

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