Interactions among fire, aspen, and elk affect insect diversity: Reversal of a community response

Joseph K. Bailey, Thomas G. Whitham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

109 Scopus citations


After a large crown fire in Arizona, we examined the direct and indirect effects of fire and herbivory (and their interaction) on the regeneration of aspen (Populus tremuloides) and arthropod species richness and abundance. We used elk exclosures covering 150 ha and other experiments to examine these interactions. Several major patterns emerged. First, in the absence of elk, there is a positive relationship between burn severity and the regeneration of aspens via asexual reproduction. Specifically, aboveground biomass of aspen resprouts was 10 times greater at sites of high burn severity than in sites of intermediate burn severity, and there was virtually no aspen regeneration without fire. Second, elk selectively browsed aspen ramets in high-severity burn sites two times more intensely than aspen ramets in intermediate-severity burn sites, largely negating the enhanced regeneration that would have otherwise occurred, thus resulting in three times greater regeneration in intermediate burn sites than in high burn sites. Third, fire and elk browsing had opposing impacts on an arthropod community composed of 33 taxa from 11 orders and 21 families. Fire severity alone showed no effect on arthropod richness and abundance; however, intermediate-severity fire and moderate levels of elk browsing resulted in 30% greater richness and almost 40% greater abundance. In contrast, high-severity fire and high levels of elk browsing resulted in 69% lower arthropod richness and 72% lower abundance. Fourth, the interaction of fire intensity and selective elk browsing resulted in four arthropod community types where the overall mosaic produced the greatest diversity. Our study demonstrates that patterns can completely reverse depending on the factors involved. This argues against a reductionist perspective and argues for studies incorporating greater complexity. At the very least, we need to be aware of such biases and consider how they may alter important decisions that affect basic ecological theory and management practices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1701-1712
Number of pages12
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2002


  • Abundance
  • Community ecology
  • Direct and indirect interactions
  • Diversity
  • Fire
  • Habitat mosaics
  • Herbivory
  • Species richness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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