Interaction between fire and fragmentation in the successional stages of coastal dune grasslands of the southern Pampas, Argentina.
Vegetation's increased vulnerability to extrinsic disturbances is an important but less studied effect of natural habitat fragmentation. Fire is part of the evolutionary history of grassland ecosystems, but fragmentation by forest plantations can alter the fire regime and influence their resilience. This study compares the successional trajectories after fire in continuous and fragmented grassland in terms of composition and abundance of plant species. Grassland fragments of varying sizes (0.1 to 2.5 ha) surrounded by a forest matrix and grassland controls of an equivalent area in adjacent, non-fragmented sites were selected. Fire was associated with an increase in the abundance of exotic plants in the fragmented grassland whereas the continuous grasslands were much more resistant to invasion. These differences in the species composition between fragments and continuous areas, which were limited to the smaller areas before the fire, were observed one year after the fire throughout the range of sizes analyzed. These results show the impact of fragmentation on grassland resilience and how the effects of this process become evident even months after a disturbance, highlighting the synergistic effect of habitat fragmentation and biological invasions, two factors identified as the main forces of biodiversity erosion.