Fire is a globally distributed disturbance that impacts terrestrial ecosystems and has been proposed to be a global “herbivore.” Fire, like herbivory, is a top-down driver that converts organic materials into inorganic products, alters community structure, and acts as an evolutionary agent. Though grazing and fire may have some comparable effects in grasslands, they do not have similar impacts on species composition and community structure. However, the concept of fire as a global herbivore implies that fire and herbivory may have similar effects on plant functional traits. Using 22 years of data from a mesic, native tallgrass prairie with a long evolutionary history of fire and grazing, we tested if trait composition between grazed and burned grassland communities would converge, and if the degree of convergence depended on fire frequency. Additionally, we tested if eliminating fire from frequently burned grasslands would result in a state similar to unburned grasslands, and if adding fire into a previously unburned grassland would cause composition to become more similar to that of frequently burned grasslands. We found that grazing and burning once every four years showed the most convergence in traits, suggesting that these communities operate under similar deterministic assembly rules and that fire and herbivory are similar disturbances to grasslands at the trait-group level of organization. Three years after reversal of the fire treatment we found that fire reversal had different effects depending on treatment. The formerly unburned community that was then burned annually became more similar to the annually burned community in trait composition suggesting that function may be rapidly restored if fire is reintroduced. Conversely, after fire was removed from the annually burned community trait composition developed along a unique trajectory indicating hysteresis, or a time lag for structure and function to return following a change in this disturbance regime. We conclude that functional traits and species-based metrics should be considered when determining and evaluating goals for fire management in mesic grassland ecosystems.
Spasojevic, M.J., R.J. Aicher, G. Koch, E.S. Marquardt, N. Mirotchnick, T. Troxler, S.L. Collins. 2010. Fire and grazing in a mesic tallgrass prairie: impacts on plant species and functional traits. Ecology 91(6): 1651-1659.