, Volume 13, Issue 7, pp 1641-1648,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 11 Dec 2010

Frequent burning promotes invasions of alien plants into a mesic African savanna

Abstract

Fire is both inevitable and necessary for maintaining the structure and functioning of mesic savannas. Without disturbances such as fire and herbivory, tree cover can increase at the expense of grass cover and over time dominate mesic savannas. Consequently, repeated burning is widely used to suppress tree recruitment and control bush encroachment. However, the effect of regular burning on invasion by alien plant species is little understood. Here, vegetation data from a long-term fire experiment, which began in 1953 in a mesic Zimbabwean savanna, were used to test whether the frequency of burning promoted alien plant invasion. The fire treatments consisted of late season fires, lit at 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-year intervals, and these regularly burnt plots were compared with unburnt plots. Results show that over half a century of frequent burning promoted the invasion by alien plants relative to areas where fire was excluded. More alien plant species became established in plots that had a higher frequency of burning. The proportion of alien species in the species assemblage was highest in the annually burnt plots followed by plots burnt biennially. Alien plant invasion was lowest in plots protected from fire but did not differ significantly between plots burnt triennially and quadrennially. Further, the abundance of five alien forbs increased significantly as the interval (in years) between fires became shorter. On average, the density of these alien forbs in annually burnt plots was at least ten times as high as the density of unburnt plots. Plant diversity was also altered by long-term burning. Total plant species richness was significantly lower in the unburnt plots compared to regularly burnt plots. These findings suggest that frequent burning of mesic savannas enhances invasion by alien plants, with short intervals between fires favouring alien forbs. Therefore, reducing the frequency of burning may be a key to minimising the risk of alien plant spread into mesic savannas, which is important because invasive plants pose a threat to native biodiversity and may alter savanna functioning.