Initial response of understorey vegetation and tree regeneration to a mixed-severity fire in old-growth Araucaria-Nothofagus forests.
Questions: Fire is a key factor influencing Araucaria araucana forests, but the impact of fire severity on the understorey vegetation is not well understood. In this study we seek to answer the following questions: (a) how do initial plant diversity, composition and spatial distribution of the understorey vegetation change in response to different levels of fire severity; and (b) does the abundance of dominant tree species exhibit different patterns across a fire severity gradient shortly after fire?Location: Old-growth Araucaria araucana-Nothofagus pumilio forests in the Andes of south-central Chile (38° S, 71° W) burned in 2015. Methods: We evaluated the post-fire plant regeneration across a fire severity gradient ranging from unburned forests to areas of high fire severity. One year after fire (in February 2016), we measured woody and herbaceous species richness, abundance, height, origin (native vs exotic species), life forms and the spatial pattern of plant recovery. Results: Plant species richness and abundance were significantly higher within the unburned forest and low fire severity areas one year after fire, compared to areas of high and moderate fire severity. Overall, nearly 50% of the species present in the unburned forest were not found in areas of high severity, including the tree Nothofagus pumilio. Rapid vegetative resprouting of pioneer species such as Chusquea culeou resulted in an aggregated spatial distribution of plants after fire. Conclusions: Plant diversity and the abundance of Araucaria araucana and Nothofagus pumilio were reduced in areas of high fire severity one year after fire. Exotic species were more abundant within areas of low severity, being likely mediated by cattle browsing. Our research makes clear the potential changes in forest composition and structure if dominant tree species are not capable of recovering after fire. We recommend the exclusion of cattle within fire-affected areas and planting Nothofagus pumilio in areas of high fire severity.