Tree topkill, not mortality, governs the dynamics of savanna-forest boundaries under frequent fire in central Brazil

William A. Hoffmann, Ryan Adasme, M. Haridasan, Marina T. De Carvalho, Erika L. Geiger, Mireia A.B. Pereira, Sybil G. Gotsch, Augusto C. Franco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

347 Scopus citations


Tropical savanna and forest are recognized to represent alternate stable states, primarily determined by feedbacks with fire. Vegetation-fire dynamics in each of these vegetation types are largely determined by the influence of the vegetation on fire behavior, as well as the effects of fire behavior on tree mortality, topkill (defined here as complete death of the aerial biomass, regardless of whether the plant recovers by resprouting), and rate of growth of resprouts. We studied the effect of fire on three savanna-forest boundaries in central Brazil. Fire intensity was greater in savanna than forest, as inferred by a twofold greater height of stem charring. Despite lower fire intensity, forest tree species exhibited higher rates of topkill, which was best explained by their thinner bark, relative to savanna species. Following topkill, there was no tendency for sprouts of savanna trees to grow faster than those of forest species, contrary to expectations, nor was whole-plant mortality higher in forest than in savanna. This contrasts with observations of high rates of postburn mortality in many other tropical forests. The low tree mortality in these transitional forests suggests that the dynamic of these natural savanna-forest boundaries is fundamentally different from that of forest boundaries originating from deforestation in the humid tropics. The forests studied here appear to be much more resilient to occasional incursion of fire from the savanna, despite being unable to invade frequently burned savanna. The thin bark of forest species makes them particularly susceptible to the "fire trap," whereby repeated topkill of small trees prevents recruitment into adult size classes. Rapid growth will be particularly important for forest species to escape the fire trap, so we predict that, where fire is frequent, forests should be restricted to high-resource sites. Here, Mg 2+ and Ca2+ concentrations had particularly strong effects on postburn growth rates, suggesting that these elements may most strongly limit the distribution of forest in these fire-prone savannas.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1326-1337
Number of pages12
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2009


  • Alternate stable states
  • Brazil
  • Cerrado
  • Evergreen forest
  • Fire ecology
  • Gallery forest
  • Hysteresis
  • Psitive feedback
  • Riparian forest
  • Savanna
  • Topkill

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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