Strange bedfellows

Researchers trace a volatile path of fire and plants.

THE humble shrub Banksia media can be an unsettling sight. After a bushfire, its flowers look like burnt corncobs that have sprouted clams with orange tongues sticking out. These protrusions are actually seedpods that had cracked open in the heat of the fire, an adaptation that took thousands of years to develop and allowed the shrub to thrive in the fire-prone West Australian bush.

Humans tend to think that plants and fires do not mix. But they are old friends, said Juli Pausas, a plant ecologist at the Desertification Research Centre in Spain. “Some plants flower only after a fire, and some develop thicker barks to survive,” he said. “Evolution has shaped plants with traits that allow them to reproduce despite fires. This is why we know that fires are very old in our ecosystems.”

“Yet, in some places you have more fires than is natural,” Pausas said. “And when you depart from natural fire regimes, that’s when problems begin.”

Scientists are piecing together a global portrait of how fire behaves around the globe, in anticipation of a much larger change in natural fire rhythms. If small disruptions can cause problems, how will larger, more widespread trends like higher global temperatures affect these delicate fire cycles?

Originally published in Sensing Our Planet: NASA Earth Science Research Features. Read the full story here.