University of Tasmania

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Soil or fire: what causes treeless sedgelands in Tasmanian wet forests?

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-21, 11:00 authored by David BowmanDavid Bowman, Perry, GLW

Ecologists fiercely debate the role of soil conditions and fire regimes in controlling forest - savanna boundaries. A prominent component of this debate centres on the plausibility and existence of fire-mediated alternative stable state dynamics (FMASS), a model first proposed by the Tasmanian ecologist WD Jackson in 1968. The FMASS model asserts that increased or decreased landscape fire activity, often due to human intervention, can overwhelm physical environmental (e.g. topography and edaphic factors) controls of forest and savanna mosaics, thereby creating landscape dynamism. Many FMASS models include fire-vegetation-soil interactions (FVS), in which changes in fire frequency can change soil fertility and hence tree growth. This interaction, in turn, affects the capacity offorests to recover from disturbance and long unburnt savanna to convert to forest.

We evaluate support for the FMASS-FVS model in the context of the dynamics of the Tasmanian forests that have recently been drawn into wider, global debates surrounding the co-occurrence of tree and treeless vegetation states. We develop a simple spatial simulation model to illuminate the difficulties in analysing landscape pattern to draw inferences about the existence of FMASS-FVS.

Our review of the Tasmanian evidence shows that FMASS-FVS cannot unambiguously explain all tracts of sedgelands in Tasmanian wet forests, and hence Tasmania should not be used as an exemplar of these theories globally. Our simulations highlight that soil sampling that targets forest boundaries risks erroneously concluding that the distribution of forest and savanna boundaries is decoupled from edaphic factors. We describe a structured methodological pathway that can identify the role of FMASS-FVS in Tasmanian forest dynamics, and elsewhere in the world. This approach use cross-scale temporal and spatial analyses, and targeted experimental tests, to illuminate the interplay of fire, vegetation and edaphic factors in controlling tree establishment and growth and forest boundary dynamics.


Publication title

Plant and Soil










School of Natural Sciences


Springer Netherlands

Place of publication


Rights statement

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017.

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Soils; Expanding knowledge in the environmental sciences