Rapid changes in functional trait expression and decomposition following high severity fire and experimental warming

Ethan M. Taber, Rachel M. Mitchell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Uncharacteristically severe wildfires are occurring at higher frequency, across larger spatial extents, and in new seasons in many parts of the globe. At the same time, climate change is elevating temperatures and altering precipitation patterns. High severity fires have the potential to produce shifts in ecosystem type and function in communities that are adapted to low severity fire via changes in community composition, functional trait values, and nutrient cycling processes. However, interactive effects between climate warming and fire severity on community composition, trait values, and ecosystem functioning are rarely studied and poorly understood. We assessed the impact of experimental warming via open top warming chambers across a burn severity gradient on the understory plant community of a Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forest in northern Arizona, USA. Specifically, we examined community composition, three plant functional traits (specific leaf area (SLA), leaf dry matter content (LDMC), and plant height) and one ecosystem function (decomposition rate) in the first post-fire growing season. High burn severity produced significant shifts in community composition. The combination of experimental warming and high burn severity significantly decreased community weighted mean LDMC and plant height, and increased decomposition rate. Our study demonstrates significant and rapid responses of community composition, trait expression, and ecosystem function in response to burn severity, experimental warming, and their interaction. This suggests that ecosystems experiencing atypically severe fire under future climate and wildfire conditions may recover in fundamentally different ways than in the past, favoring a different suite of species and traits, with altered ecosystem function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number121019
JournalForest Ecology and Management
StatePublished - Aug 1 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • Decomposition
  • Fire severity
  • Plant community dynamics
  • Plant functional traits
  • Understory
  • Warming

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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