Repeated burning of eastern tallgrass prairie increases richness and diversity, stabilizing late successional vegetation

Ecol Appl. 2013 Mar;23(2):464-78. doi: 10.1890/12-0808.1.


Understanding temporal effects of fire frequency on plant species diversity and vegetation structure is critical for managing tallgrass prairie (TGP), which occupies a mid-continental longitudinal precipitation and productivity gradient. Eastern TGP has contributed little information toward understanding whether vegetation-fire interactions are uniform or change across this biome. We resampled 34 fire-managed mid- and late-successional ungrazed TGP remnants occurring across a dry to wet-mesic moisture gradient in the Chicago region of Illinois, USA. We compared hypotheses that burning acts either as a stabilizing force or causes change in diversity and structure, depending upon fire frequency and successional stage. Based on western TGP, we expected a unimodal species richness distribution across a cover-productivity gradient, variable functional group responses to fire frequency, and a negative relationship between fire frequency and species richness. Species diversity was unimodal across the cover gradient and was more strongly humpbacked in stands with greater fire frequency. In support of a stabilizing hypothesis, temporal similarity of late-successional vegetation had a logarithmic relationship with increasing fire frequency, while richness and evenness remained stable. Temporal similarity within mid-successional stands was not correlated with fire frequency, while richness increased and evenness decreased over time. Functional group responses to fire frequency were variable. Summer forb richness increased under high fire frequency, while C4 grasses, spring forbs, and nitrogen-fixing species decreased with fire exclusion. On mesic and wet-mesic sites, vegetation structure measured by the ratio of woody to graminoid species was negatively correlated with abundance of forbs and with fire frequency. Our findings that species richness responds unimodally to an environmental-productivity gradient, and that fire exclusion increases woody vegetation and leads to loss of C4 and N-fixing species, suggest that these processes are uniform across the TGP biome and not affected by its rainfall-productivity gradient. However, increasing fire frequency in eastern TGP appears to increase richness of summer forbs and stabilize late-successional vegetation in the absence of grazing, and these processes may differ across the longitudinal axis of TGP. Managing species diversity in ungrazed eastern TGP may be dependent upon high fire frequency that removes woody vegetation and prevents biomass accumulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biodiversity*
  • Environment
  • Fires*
  • Illinois
  • Plants / classification*
  • Seat Belts
  • Time Factors