Effects of anthropogenic wildfire in low-elevation Pacific island vegetation communities in French Polynesia


Abstract

Anthropogenic (or human-caused) wildfire is an increasingly important driver of ecological change on Pacific islands including southeastern Polynesia, but fire ecology studies are almost completely absent for this region. Where observations do exist, they mostly represent descriptions of fire effects on plant communities before the introduction of invasive species in the modern era. Understanding the effects of wildfire in southeastern Polynesian island vegetation communities can elucidate which species may become problematic invasives with continued wildfire activity. We review what is known about fire effects in low elevation plant communities in Polynesia. We also investigate the effects of wildfire on vegetation in three low-elevation sites (45-379 m) on the island of Mo'orea in the Society Islands, French Polynesia, which are already heavily impacted by past human land use and invasive exotic plants, but retain some native flora. We analyze plants in categories: natives, those introduced by Polynesians before European contact (1767 C.E.), and those introduced since European contact. Burned areas have the same or lower mean species richness than paired unburned sites. Although wildfire does not affect the proportions of native and introduced species, it may increase the abundance of introduced species on some sites. Non-metric multidimensional scaling indicates that unburned plant communities are more distinct from one another than are those on burned sites. We discuss conservation concerns for particular native plants absent from burned sites, as well as invasive species (including Lantana camara and Paraserianthes falcataria) that may be promoted by fire in the Pacific.
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