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Contrasting effects of urbanization and fire on understory plant communities in the natural and wildland–urban interface

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As human populations expand and land-use change intensifies, terrestrial ecosystems experience concurrent disturbances (e.g., urbanization and fire) that may interact and compound their effects on biodiversity. In the urbanizing landscapes of the southern Appalachian region of the United States of America (US), fires in mesic forests have become more frequent in recent years. However, 80 years of forest management practices aimed at fire suppression in this region may have decreased landscape resistance or resilience to high-severity fires. At the same time, housing development is rapidly expanding in the wildland–urban interface, creating opportunities to examine the combined effects of urbanization and fire disturbances on plant communities when fires occur. Here, we investigated how understory plant communities were affected by a fire that varied in severity at sites in Gatlinburg, TN, and in the adjacent Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our goal was to investigate the individual and combined effects of fire and urbanization on plant community composition in the second growing season after a fire. Overall, we found a significant interaction effect of fire severity and urbanization on total plant abundance and richness, such that increasing fire severity was associated with lower abundance and richness in natural areas but higher abundance and richness in exurban areas. Shannon diversity was significantly affected by fire severity and urbanization, but not interactively. Plant composition was affected by fire severity, urbanization, and their interaction effects. Understory plant communities in exurban locations (low-density residential areas near protected lands) were resilient following the pulse disturbance event (fire), likely because of their consistent exposure to a press disturbance (urbanization). Our study indicates a press disturbance may change the way a subsequent pulse disturbance affects plant communities. Our findings contribute new insights into how disturbances can interact to alter patterns of biodiversity in the southeastern US.

M.M. Hubert; J.A. Schweitzer; X. Giam; M. Papeş

Hubert MM, Schweitzer JA, Giam X, Papeş M. Contrasting effects of urbanization and fire on understory plant communities in the natural and wildland–urban interface. Ecosphere. 2023 ;14(5).

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