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Data from: Determinants of flammability in savanna grass species

Cite this dataset

Simpson, Kimberley J. et al. (2015). Data from: Determinants of flammability in savanna grass species [Dataset]. Dryad.


1. Tropical grasses fuel the majority of fires on Earth. In fire-prone landscapes, enhanced flammability may be adaptive for grasses via the maintenance of an open canopy and an increase in spatiotemporal opportunities for recruitment and regeneration. In addition, by burning intensely but briefly, high flammability may protect resprouting buds from lethal temperatures. Despite these potential benefits of high flammability to fire-prone grasses, variation in flammability among grass species, and how trait differences underpin this variation, remains unknown. 2. By burning leaves and plant parts, we experimentally determined how five plant traits (biomass quantity, biomass density, biomass moisture content, leaf surface-area-to-volume ratio and leaf effective heat of combustion) combined to determine the three components of flammability (ignitability, sustainability and combustibility) at the leaf and plant scales in 25 grass species of fire-prone South African grasslands at a time of peak fire occurrence. The influence of evolutionary history on flammability was assessed based on a phylogeny built here for the study species. 3. Grass species differed significantly in all components of flammability. Accounting for evolutionary history helped to explain patterns in leaf-scale combustibility and sustainability. The five measured plant traits predicted components of flammability, particularly leaf ignitability and plant combustibility in which 70% and 58% of variation, respectively, could be explained by a combination of the traits. Total above-ground biomass was a key driver of combustibility and sustainability with high biomass species burning more intensely and for longer, and producing the highest predicted fire spread rates. Moisture content was the main influence on ignitability, where species with higher moisture contents took longer to ignite and once alight burnt at a slower rate. Biomass density, leaf surface-area-to-volume ratio and leaf effective heat of combustion were weaker predictors of flammability components. 4. Synthesis. We demonstrate that grass flammability is predicted from easily measurable plant functional traits and is influenced by evolutionary history with some components showing phylogenetic signal. Grasses are not homogenous fuels to fire. Rather, species differ in functional traits that in turn demonstrably influence flammability. This diversity is consistent with the idea that flammability may be an adaptive trait for grasses of fire-prone ecosystems.

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