Life Stage and Neighborhood-Dependent Survival of Longleaf Pine after Prescribed Fire
Determining mechanisms of plant establishment in ecological communities can be particularly difficult in disturbance-dominated ecosystems. Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris Mill.) and its associated plant community exemplify systems that evolved with disturbances, where frequent, widespread fires alter the population dynamics of longleaf pine within distinct life stages. We identified the primary biotic and environmental conditions that influence the survival of longleaf pine in this disturbance-dominated ecosystem. We combined data from recruitment surveys, tree censuses, dense lidar point clouds, and a forest-wide prescribed fire to examine the response of longleaf pine individuals to fire and biotic neighborhoods. We found that fire temperatures increased with increasing longleaf pine neighborhood basal area and decreased with higher oak densities. There was considerable variation in longleaf pine survival across life stages, with lowest survival probabilities occurring during the bolt stage and not in the earlier, more fire-resistant grass stage. Survival of grass-stage, bolt-stage, and sapling longleaf pines was negatively associated with basal area of neighboring longleaf pine and positively related to neighboring heterospecific tree density, primarily oaks (Quercus spp.). Our findings highlight the vulnerability of longleaf pine across life stages, which suggests optimal fire management strategies for controlling longleaf pine density, and—more broadly—emphasize the importance of fire in mediating species interactions.