How fire interacts with habitat loss and fragmentation

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2021 Jun;96(3):976-998. doi: 10.1111/brv.12687. Epub 2021 Feb 9.


Biodiversity faces many threats and these can interact to produce outcomes that may not be predicted by considering their effects in isolation. Habitat loss and fragmentation (hereafter 'fragmentation') and altered fire regimes are important threats to biodiversity, but their interactions have not been systematically evaluated across the globe. In this comprehensive synthesis, including 162 papers which provided 274 cases, we offer a framework for understanding how fire interacts with fragmentation. Fire and fragmentation interact in three main ways: (i) fire influences fragmentation (59% of 274 cases), where fire either destroys and fragments habitat or creates and connects habitat; (ii) fragmentation influences fire (25% of cases) where, after habitat is reduced in area and fragmented, fire in the landscape is subsequently altered because people suppress or ignite fires, or there is increased edge flammability or increased obstruction to fire spread; and (iii) where the two do not influence each other, but fire interacts with fragmentation to affect responses like species richness, abundance and extinction risk (16% of cases). Where fire and fragmentation do influence each other, feedback loops are possible that can lead to ecosystem conversion (e.g. forest to grassland). This is a well-documented threat in the tropics but with potential also to be important elsewhere. Fire interacts with fragmentation through scale-specific mechanisms: fire creates edges and drives edge effects; fire alters patch quality; and fire alters landscape-scale connectivity. We found only 12 cases in which studies reported the four essential strata for testing a full interaction, which were fragmented and unfragmented landscapes that both span contrasting fire histories, such as recently burnt and long unburnt vegetation. Simulation and empirical studies show that fire and fragmentation can interact synergistically, multiplicatively, antagonistically or additively. These cases highlight a key reason why understanding interactions is so important: when fire and fragmentation act together they can cause local extinctions, even when their separate effects are neutral. Whether fire-fragmentation interactions benefit or disadvantage species is often determined by the species' preferred successional stage. Adding fire to landscapes generally benefits early-successional plant and animal species, whereas it is detrimental to late-successional species. However, when fire interacts with fragmentation, the direction of effect of fire on a species could be reversed from the effect expected by successional preferences. Adding fire to fragmented landscapes can be detrimental for species that would normally co-exist with fire, because species may no longer be able to disperse to their preferred successional stage. Further, animals may be attracted to particular successional stages leading to unexpected responses to fragmentation, such as higher abundance in more isolated unburnt patches. Growing human populations and increasing resource consumption suggest that fragmentation trends will worsen over coming years. Combined with increasing alteration of fire regimes due to climate change and human-caused ignitions, interactions of fire with fragmentation are likely to become more common. Our new framework paves the way for developing a better understanding of how fire interacts with fragmentation, and for conserving biodiversity in the face of these emerging challenges.

Keywords: edge effect; fire; habitat fragmentation; habitat loss; interactions; landscape; planned burn; prescribed burning; succession; wildfire.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biodiversity*
  • Climate Change
  • Ecosystem*
  • Forests
  • Humans
  • Plants