Plant Ecology

, Volume 217, Issue 6, pp 645–659 | Cite as

Fire form and function: evidence for exaptive flammability in the New Zealand flora

  • Norman W. H. Mason
  • Cyril Frazao
  • Rowan P. Buxton
  • Sarah J. Richardson


This study tests whether or not foliar flammability is related to resource-use and anti-herbivore defence strategies of plant species. We measured the flammability (at 400 °C) of 1640 dry and fresh leaves across 115 common native New Zealand woody and herbaceous species collected from sites throughout New Zealand. We used three indicators of foliar flammability—leaf temperature at smoke production and on ignition and the rate of increase in leaf temperature during the combustion process. We tested for relationships between these flammability measures, foliar morphological and chemical traits and growth form. All significant correlations showed increased foliar flammability with increasing foliar surface area:volume ratio (SAV) and nutrient content and decreasing tissue density, lignin and secondary metabolite concentrations. Coniferous trees were the growth form with the least flammable leaves due to leaf morphology associated low leaf SAV and high tissue density. This suggests there may be a general relationship between resource-use strategies and foliar flammability, via the influence of leaf morphology on both these aspects of plant function.


Functional trait Herbivory Leaf nitrogen Leaf phosphorus Phenols Tannins 



This work was funded through the Ecosystem Resilience Outcome Based Investment administered by the New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (Contract C09X0502), and by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. We thank Elaine Wright and Janet Wilmshurst for project support; Bill Lee for comments on an earlier draft; Grant Pearce, Stewart Anderson and Malcolm Gill for advice in developing methods for measuring flammability; and Keven Drew and Simon Burrows for technical assistance.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 44 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (TXT 5 kb)
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Supplementary material 3 (TXT 8 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Norman W. H. Mason
    • 1
  • Cyril Frazao
    • 1
  • Rowan P. Buxton
    • 2
  • Sarah J. Richardson
    • 2
  1. 1.Landcare ResearchHamiltonNew Zealand
  2. 2.Landcare ResearchLincolnNew Zealand

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