, Volume 177, Issue 2, pp 507–518 | Cite as

Historical agriculture alters the effects of fire on understory plant beta diversity

  • W. Brett MattinglyEmail author
  • John L. Orrock
  • Cathy D. Collins
  • Lars A. Brudvig
  • Ellen I. Damschen
  • Joseph W. Veldman
  • Joan L. Walker
Community ecology - Original research


Land-use legacies are known to shape the diversity and distribution of plant communities, but we lack an understanding of whether historical land use influences community responses to contemporary disturbances. Because human-modified landscapes often bear a history of multiple land-use activities, this contingency can challenge our understanding of land-use impacts on plant diversity. We address this contingency by evaluating how beta diversity (the spatial variability of species composition), an important component of regional biodiversity, is shaped by interactions between historical agriculture and prescribed fire, two prominent disturbances that are often coincident in terrestrial ecosystems. At three study locations spanning 450 km in the southeastern United States, we surveyed longleaf pine woodland understory plant communities across 232 remnant and post-agricultural sites with differing prescribed fire regimes. Our results demonstrate that agricultural legacies are a strong predictor of beta diversity, but the direction of this land-use effect differed among the three study locations. Further, although beta diversity increased with prescribed fire frequency at each study location, this effect was influenced by agricultural land-use history, such that positive fire effects were only documented among sites that lacked a history of agriculture at two of our three study locations. Our study not only highlights the role of historical agriculture in shaping beta diversity in a fire-maintained ecosystem but also illustrates how this effect can be contingent upon fire regime and geographic location. We suggest that interactions among historical and contemporary land-use activities may help to explain dissimilarities in plant communities among sites in human-dominated landscapes.


Agriculture Beta diversity Fire Land-use legacies Longleaf pine 



This study was funded by the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (Project RC-1695) and by funds provided to the Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Savannah River, under Interagency Agreement DE-AI09-00SR22188 with the Department of Energy, Aiken, SC. For assistance at field locations, we thank J. Gray and D. Heins (Ft. Bragg); T. Beatty and D. Lavender (Ft. Stewart); and J. Blake, K. Lawrence, and E. Olson (SRS). For assistance with data collection, we thank L. Bizzari, C. Christopher, A. Powell, and R. Ranalli. E. Grman provided helpful comments on previous drafts of this manuscript. This study complied with the current laws of the United States.

Supplementary material

442_2014_3144_MOESM1_ESM.docx (44 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 44 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • W. Brett Mattingly
    • 1
    • 5
    Email author
  • John L. Orrock
    • 1
  • Cathy D. Collins
    • 2
  • Lars A. Brudvig
    • 3
  • Ellen I. Damschen
    • 1
  • Joseph W. Veldman
    • 1
  • Joan L. Walker
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of ZoologyUniversity of WisconsinMadisonUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyColby CollegeWatervilleUSA
  3. 3.Department of Plant BiologyMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  4. 4.U.S. Forest Service Southern Research StationClemsonUSA
  5. 5.Department of BiologyEastern Connecticut State UniversityWillimanticUSA

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