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The species diversity × fire severity relationship is hump-shaped in semiarid yellow pine and mixed conifer forests

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The combination of direct human influences and the effects of climate change are resulting in altered ecological disturbance regimes, and this is especially the case for wildfires. Many regions that historically experienced low–moderate severity fire regimes are seeing increased area burned at high severity as a result of interactions between high fuel loads and climate warming with a number of negative ecological effects. While ecosystem impacts of altered fire regimes have been examined in the literature, little is known of the effects of changing fire regimes on forest understory plant diversity even though understory taxa comprise the vast majority of forest plant species and play vital roles in overall ecosystem function. We examined understory plant diversity across gradients of wildfire severity in eight large wildfires in yellow pine and mixed conifer temperate forests of the Sierra Nevada, California, USA. We found a generally unimodal hump-shaped relationship between local (alpha) plant diversity and fire severity. High-severity burning resulted in lower local diversity as well as some homogenization of the flora at the regional scale. Fire severity class, post-fire litter cover, and annual precipitation were the best predictors of understory species diversity. Our research suggests that increases in fire severity in systems historically characterized by low and moderate severity fire may lead to plant diversity losses. These findings indicate that global patterns of increasing fire size and severity may have important implications for biodiversity.

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