Fire as a key driver of Earth's biodiversity
Document Type: Journal
Author(s): Tianhua He ; Byron B. Lamont ; Juli G. Pausas
Publication Year: 2019

Cataloging Information

  • biodiversity
  • environmental heterogeneity
  • fire regime
  • intermediate disturbance hypothesis
  • patch mosaic burning
  • pyrodiversity
Record Maintained By:
Record Last Modified: July 15, 2019
FRAMES Record Number: 58231


Many terrestrial ecosystems are fire prone, such that their composition and structure are largely due to their fire regime. Regions subject to regular fire have exceptionally high levels of species richness and endemism, and fire has been proposed as a major driver of their diversity, within the context of climate, resource availability and environmental heterogeneity. However, current fire‐management practices rarely take into account the ecological and evolutionary roles of fire in maintaining biodiversity. Here, we focus on the mechanisms that enable fire to act as a major ecological and evolutionary force that promotes and maintains biodiversity over numerous spatiotemporal scales. From an ecological perspective, the vegetation, topography and local weather conditions during a fire generate a landscape with spatial and temporal variation in fire‐related patches (pyrodiversity), and these produce the biotic and environmental heterogeneity that drives biodiversity across local and regional scales. There have been few empirical tests of the proposition that 'pyrodiversity begets biodiversity' but we show that biodiversity should peak at moderately high levels of pyrodiversity. Overall species richness is greatest immediately after fire and declines monotonically over time, with postfire successional pathways dictated by animal habitat preferences and varying lifespans among resident plants. Theory and data support the ‘intermediate disturbance hypothesis’ when mean patch species diversity is correlated with mean fire intervals. Postfire persistence, recruitment and immigration allow species with different life histories to coexist. From an evolutionary perspective, fire drives population turnover and diversification by promoting a wide range of adaptive responses to particular fire regimes. Among 39 comparisons, the number of species in 26 fire‐prone lineages is much higher than that in their non‐fire‐prone sister lineages. Fire and its byproducts may have direct mutagenic effects, producing novel genotypes that can lead to trait innovation and even speciation. A paradigm shift aimed at restoring biodiversity‐maintaining fire regimes across broad landscapes is required among the fire research and management communities. This will require ecologists and other professionals to spread the burgeoning fire‐science knowledge beyond scientific publications to the broader public, politicians and media.

Online Link(s):
He, Tianhua; Lamont, Byron B.; Pausas, Juli G. 2019. Fire as a key driver of Earth's biodiversity. Biological Reviews online early.