Intraspecific trait variability shapes leaf trait response to altered fire regimes

Rachel M. Mitchell, Greg M. Ames, Justin P. Wright

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Background and Aims: Understanding impacts of altered disturbance regimes on community structure and function is a key goal for community ecology. Functional traits link species composition to ecosystem functioning. Changes in the distribution of functional traits at community scales in response to disturbance can be driven not only by shifts in species composition, but also by shifts in intraspecific trait values. Understanding the relative importance of these two processes has important implications for predicting community responses to altered disturbance regimes. Methods: We experimentally manipulated fire return intervals in replicated blocks of a fire-adapted, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) ecosystem in North Carolina, USA and measured specific leaf area (SLA), leaf dry matter content (LDMC) and compositional responses along a lowland to upland gradient over a 4 year period. Plots were burned between zero and four times. Using a trait-based approach, we simulate hypothetical scenarios which allow species presence, abundance or trait values to vary over time and compare these with observed traits to understand the relative contributions of each of these three processes to observed trait patterns at the study site. We addressed the following questions. (1) How do changes in the fire regime affect community composition, structure and community-level trait responses? (2) Are these effects consistent across a gradient of fire intensity? (3) What are the relative contributions of species turnover, changes in abundance and changes in intraspecific trait values to observed changes in community-weighted mean (CWM) traits in response to altered fire regime? Key Results: We found strong evidence that altered fire return interval impacted understorey plant communities. The number of fires a plot experienced significantly affected the magnitude of its compositional change and shifted the ecotone boundary separating shrub-dominated lowland areas from grass-dominated upland areas, with suppression sites (0 burns) experiencing an upland shift and annual burn sites a lowland shift. We found significant effects of burn regimes on the CWM of SLA, and that observed shifts in both SLA and LDMC were driven primarily by intraspecific changes in trait values. Conclusions: In a fire-adapted ecosystem, increased fire frequency altered community composition and structure of the ecosystem through changes in the position of the shrub line. We also found that plant traits responded directionally to increased fire frequency, with SLA decreasing in response to fire frequency across the environmental gradient. For both SLA and LDMC, nearly all of the observed changes in CWM traits were driven by intraspecific variation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)543-552
Number of pages10
JournalAnnals of Botany
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2021


  • Aristida stricta
  • Pinus palustris
  • community-weighted means
  • disturbance
  • ecotone
  • fire
  • intraspecific variation
  • longleaf pine
  • specific leaf area

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Plant Science


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