Effects of anthropogenic wildfire in low-elevation Pacific island vegetation communities in French Polynesia.
Anthropogenic (or human-caused) wildfire is an increasingly important driver of ecological change on Pacific islands including southeastern Polynesia, but fire ecology studies are almost completely absent for this region. Where observations do exist, they mostly represent descriptions of fire effects on plant communities before the introduction of invasive species in the modern era. Understanding the effects of wildfire in southeastern Polynesian island vegetation communities can elucidate which species may become problematic invasives with continued wildfire activity. We investigate the effects of wildfire on vegetation in three low-elevation sites (45-379 m) on the island of Mo'orea in the Society Islands, French Polynesia, which are already heavily impacted by past human land use and invasive exotic plants, but retain some native flora. In six study areas (three burned and three unburned comparisons), we placed 30 transects across sites and collected species and abundance information at 390 points. We analyzed each local community of plants in three categories: natives, those introduced by Polynesians before European contact (1767 C.E.), and those introduced since European contact. Burned areas had the same or lower mean species richness than paired comparison sites. Although wildfire did not affect the proportions of native and introduced species, it may increase the abundance of introduced species on some sites. Non-metric multidimensional scaling indicates that (not recently modified) comparison plant communities are more distinct from one another than are those on burned sites. We discuss conservation concerns for particular native plants absent from burned sites, as well as invasive species (including Lantana camara and Paraserianthes falcataria) that may be promoted by fire in the Pacific.