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Shoot flammability of vascular plants is phylogenetically conserved and related to habitat fire-proneness and growth form


Terrestrial plants and fire have interacted for at least 420 million years1. Whether recurrent fire drives plants to evolve higher flammability and what the evolutionary pattern of plant flammability is remain unclear2,3,4,5,6,7. Here, we show that phylogeny, the susceptibility of a habitat to have recurrent fires (that is, fire-proneness) and growth form are important predictors of the shoot flammability of 194 indigenous and introduced vascular plant species (Tracheophyta) from New Zealand. The phylogenetic signal of the flammability components and the variation in flammability among phylogenetic groups (families and higher taxonomic level clades) demonstrate that shoot flammability is phylogenetically conserved. Some closely related species, such as in Dracophyllum (Ericaceae), vary in flammability, indicating that flammability exhibits evolutionary flexibility. Species in fire-prone ecosystems tend to be more flammable than species from non-fire-prone ecosystems, suggesting that fire may have an important role in the evolution of plant flammability. Growth form also influenced flammability—forbs were less flammable than grasses, trees and shrubs; by contrast, grasses had higher biomass consumption by fire than other groups. The results show that shoot flammability of plants is largely correlated with phylogenetic relatedness, and high flammability may result in parallel evolution driven by environmental factors, such as fire regime.

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Fig. 1: Evolution of shoot flammability across the vascular plant phylogeny.
Fig. 2: Variation in flammability components among plant growth forms (n = 194 species) and habitats (n = 186 species).

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The source data for Fig. 1 are available with the paper.


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We thank B. Murray and D. Schwilk for comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript. X.C. was funded by Lincoln University, and sampling was funded by the Fire and Emergency New Zealand and the Miss E. L. Hellaby Indigenous Grasslands Research Trust.

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Authors and Affiliations



The original idea was conceived by T.J.C., S.V.W. and G.L.W.P. This project was developed and designed by X.C., T.J.C., A.M.P., S.V.W., G.L.W.P. and H.L.B. Flammability data were collected by T.J.C., S.V.W., M.A.A., J.P.C., X.C., K.J.L.M., R.P., J.B., D.D. and D.M.O. X.C. performed the statistical analyses with advice from A.M.P., T.J.C., S.V.W., M.A.A., K.J.L.M. and G.L.W.P. X.C. and T.J.C. led the writing of the manuscript, with input from all of the co-authors. All of the authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Xinglei Cui or Timothy J. Curran.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Plants thanks Sandra Bravo, Pedro Jaureguiberry and James Kirkpatrick for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information sections 1 and 2, Figs. 1–5, and Tables 2 and3.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Table 1

Data and relevant information of the 194 species used in this study.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Raw flammability data.

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Cui, X., Paterson, A.M., Wyse, S. et al. Shoot flammability of vascular plants is phylogenetically conserved and related to habitat fire-proneness and growth form. Nat. Plants 6, 355–359 (2020).

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