In southwestern American deserts, fire has been historically uncommon because of insufficient continuity of fuel for spreading. However, deserts have been invaded by exotic species that now connect the empty space between shrubs to carry fire. We hypothesized that fire would change the spatial distribution of surviving Larrea tridentata shrubs. We established two study plots, one each in a burned and unburned area, and recorded location and living status of all shrubs. We performed univariate and bivariate point pattern analyses to characterize the impact of fire on the overall distribution of shrubs. Additionally, we used a simple wildfire model to determine how close we could come to reconstructing the observed spatial pattern of living and dead shrubs. We found a hyper-dispersed pattern of shrubs at finer scales and a random pattern at broader scales for both the unburned plot and for the living and dead shrubs combined in the burned plot, the latter providing an approximation of the pre-burn distribution of shrubs. After fire, living shrubs showed a clustered pattern at scales >2.5 m, whereas dead shrubs were randomly distributed, indicating that fire caused a change in the spatial pattern of the surviving shrubs. The fire model was able to partially reconstruct the spatial pattern of Larrea, but created a more clustered distribution for both living and dead shrubs. Our study reinforces the key role of fire in altering landscapes that had not been habituated to fire, and suggests the existence of potential cascading effects across the entire plant community.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Desert shrublands
- Ecological fire effects
- Pair correlation function (PCF)
- Point pattern analysis
- Spatial pattern