Fire in tropical pine ecosystems

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Abstract

The genus Pinus extends into tropical environments in the neotropics of Mesoamerica, the Caribbean islands, and the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. In Old World tropics, pines occur from southeast China to the Philippines and Southeast Asia. Only one species, Pinus merkusii De Vries in Sumatra, occurs south of the equator. Pines in the tropics, as elsewhere, are associated with stressed and/or disturbed environments. In seasonal environments, they are frequently linked to fire, with some species, and the ecosystems they characterize, dependent on recurring fire. This chapter focuses on the role of fire in tropical pine ecosystems. We rely on a limited literature base; a wealth of information from analogous ecosystems in warm temperate environments, particularly those found on the southeastern coastal plain of North America; observations made by the authors in the neotropics; and a growing body of information coming from recent and ongoing studies in the highlands of Mexico.

In some cases, tropical pine ecosystems appear to be successional ecosystems that have expanded off central habitats onto disturbed sites created by human activities and burning. In other cases, they appear to be unique assemblages of species dependent on, and specific to, particular fire regimes. In those ecosystems where fire plays an obvious role, the pine, mid-story, and groundcover species have obvious adaptations or responses to fire. These may be adaptations to survive or resist fire such as thick bark, fire-resistant seedling stages, and re-sprouting capacity, and/or positive responses to fire effects (e.g., seed germination, regeneration success, and flowering responses). Another adaptation is flammability. The pines, along with the dominant grasses, palms, and shrubs, seem to facilitate ignition and the spread of fire across the landscape.

Most fires in tropical pine ecosystems have been recorded as human-caused, though examples from the Florida peninsula suggest that lightning-ignited fires may be significantly underreported in some places. People burn pine forests and savannas for a variety of reasons (e.g., hunting, forage improvement, facilitate access and travel). Escaped agricultural fires, accidental ignitions, and arson are also common sources of fire.

Fire-maintained pine forests and savannas provide habitats for a number of plant and animal species not found in other tropical vegetation types, and thus they are important to biodiversity conservation. Because most tropical pine landscapes are highly fragmented, active fire management, including the use of prescribed fire, will be essential to their conservation. Unfortunately, in most countries with tropical pine ecosystems, the important role of fire is not understood and prescribed fire is not an accepted ecosystem management tool. More integrated approaches to fire management are needed that will expand the use of prescribed fire in appropriate ecosystems, incorporate traditional fire use by rural communities, and provide supportive public policies that recognize the ecological role of fire.