Masters Thesis

Disturbance effects across a productivity gradient: postfire vegetation response in serpentine and non-serpentine forests in the northern Sierra Nevada (California, USA)

Disturbances such as wildfire play a major role in the diversity, structure, and composition of plant communities, however, little is known about the differential impacts of fire across landscapes that vary in characteristics such as soil nutrients and site productivity. Theory predicts that productivity can mediate the impacts of fire for reasons related to broad ecological processes and differential selective forces. For instance, ecosystems with lower site productivity are less limited by space and light and consequently experience less pronounced changes in these resources following a disturbance. Moreover, resource availability related to disturbance and productivity can affect the proportion of plants with competitive versus stress-tolerant life history strategies. In this study, we utilized a model system for testing predictions about productivity and disturbance that included a mixed conifer forest across a gradient of edaphically harsh, ultramafic “serpentine” soils and “non-serpentine” soils in the northern Sierra Nevada (California, USA). We predicted that the magnitude of fire effects on plant diversity from a 2008 wildfire would be positively related to productivity (higher on non-serpentine soils) and that these factors would interact as environmental filters driving post-fire species assemblage. In summer 2013 we established 90 vegetation plots in burned areas and 40 plots outside the fire perimeter as a proxy for pre-fire conditions. We found a unimodal relationship between species diversity and fire severity (peaking at low/moderate severity), and mild evidence post-fire changes were more pronounced on non-serpentine soils. In contrast, we found strong evidence that productivity and fire severity interact as drivers of species composition and functional traits with a higher proportion of resprouting shrubs on non-serpentine soils and, contrary to our prediction, more invaders on serpentine soils. We hypothesize that differences in biomass between serpentine and non-serpentine forests were not substantial enough to elicit a differential diversity response, possibly deriving from a weaker serpentine syndrome in this region that has been previously noted. Our study reveals that differences in productivity can mediate the outcome of disturbances in ways that cannot be detected through standard community diversity metrics, and that consideration of life history trait variation is necessary.