Comparing morphology and physiology of southeastern US Pinus seedlings: implications for adaptation to surface fire regimes

The suite of traits expressed as seedlings by coastal and mountain longleaf pine and south Florida slash pine suggest they can survive fire in the seedling stage. In contrast, loblolly pine and typical slash pine tolerate fire when mature but do not exhibit traits that allow them to survive fire when young, representing a different strategy for survival in frequently burned communities.

Context. Fire is an important driver in the distribution and abundance of southern US pine species, and seedling fire tolerance often determines individual survival under frequent fire regimes.
Aims. We investigated seedling growth, biomass allocation, needle distribution, bark thickness, and total non-structural carbohydrate (TNC) storage in taproots and related them to the expression of fire-tolerance for five species or types, including loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.), two longleaf pine (P. palustris Mill.) types representing two distinct ecological communities (coastal and mountain) and two slash pine (P. elliottii Englem.) varieties.
Methods. We analyzed the relationship of seedling growth, biomass characteristics, and total non-structural carbohydrate storage between species by using analysis of variance.
Results. Both coastal and mountain longleaf pines had thick bark, long, densely arranged needles, and a grass-stage. South Florida slash pine shared the same suite of traits but, contrary to previous reports, displayed reduced height growth rather than a grass-stage. In contrast, loblolly pine and typical slash pine had faster height growth, more branching, lower needle density, and thinner bark. Both longleaf pines and south Florida slash pine also had higher TNC storage in taproots than either loblolly or typical slash pines.
Conclusion. The relative strength of expression of these fire-adaptation traits among the five species types generally matches the fire-return intervals associated with each species’ habitat, suggesting the importance of fire regimes in determining the distribution and abundance of the studied species.

Keywords
Mountain longleaf, South Florida slash pine, Fire-tolerance, Total non-structural carbohydrate, Bark thickness

Publication
Pile, L.S., Wang, G.G., Knapp, B.O. et al. Annals of Forest Science (2017) 74: 68. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13595-017-0666-6

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