Impacts of fire severity and cattle grazing on early plant dynamics in old-growth Araucaria-Nothofagus forests.
Background: Fire has historically shaped the dynamics of Araucaria araucana-Nothofagus pumilio forests in the Andean region of South America. Nevertheless, human disturbances and stronger drought events have resulted in increased occurrence and severity of wildfires. Regardless of their conservation relevance, the initial response to fire of Araucaria-Nothofagus forests has not been well documented. Through this research we tested the hypothesis that plant composition of Araucaria-Nothofagus forest after fire will initially differ in its recovery depending on fire severity, but over time, plant similarity will increase among areas with different levels of fire severity. The study was carried out in old-growth Araucaria-Nothofagus forests in south-central Chile (38°S) that were burned in 2015. We studied vegetation response to three levels of fire severity (low (LS), moderate (MS) and high (HS) severity), also including an adjacent unburned forest (UN), which were assessed one, two and three years after fire. We also evaluated the impact of cattle on plant recovery after fire. We measured species richness, abundance, plant diversity and origin of all vascular plant species. Results: Species richness and plant abundance responded differently to fire severity. Time-since-fire had a significant effect on plant richness and abundance. Plant composition within LS areas was similar to UN areas, but MS and HS areas were significantly less diverse compared to UN and LS. In absence of other major disturbances, similarity in plant composition tended to increase over time across the different levels of fire severity, becoming more similar to UN. We also found a synergetic effect of cattle and fire on species richness. This interaction promotes the establishment of non-native species and limits the recovery of native species following fire. Conclusions: Fire severity had a significant impact on the plant community of old-growth Araucaria-Nothofagus forests, especially in areas of high fire severity, where the native tree N. pumilio was completely absent. Nevertheless, plant communities can recover gradually, depending on fire severity, time-since-fire, and the absence of cattle grazing. Management actions should include the exclusion of cattle within fire-affected areas and afforestation with N. pumilio in areas high fire severity due to its unsuccessful recruitment after fire.