Increasing cuticular wax concentrations in a drier climate promote litter flammability

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Ormeño E, Ruffault J, Gutigny C, Madrigal J, Guijarro M, Hernando C, Ballini C (2020) - Increasing cuticular wax concentrations in a drier climate promote litter flammability - Forest Ecology and Management

Several plant chemical traits (cellulose, tannins and terpenes) have been related to plant flammability. Contrastingly, no study has focused on the relationship between plant flammability and physico-chemical leaf litter traits with a focus on cuticular wax concentration. This study focuses on alkane cuticular waxes because of their relatively low flash point and storage in the cuticle of all vascular plant species. The sclerophyllous species Quercus coccifera is the model species since it is the main shrub species in the Mediterranean basin and all previously investigated sclerophyllous species feature a high cuticular wax content. Litter was collected in a Mediterranean garrigue where Q. coccifera grows under natural drought and recurrent aggravated drought (consisting of 5.5 years of rain restriction). These different drought conditions were expected to imply different alkane wax concentrations since one of the major roles of cuticular waxes is evapotranspiration limitation during drought. Litter flammability was assessed through ignition delay, flame residence time and flame height (assessed using an epiradiator) and gross heat of combustion (using an adiabatic bomb calorimeter). Results showed that the higher cuticular alkane concentrations reached under aggravated drought were associated with an increased leaf litter flammability as expected. These results confirm that all potentially flammable organic metabolites (terpenes as previously reported in other studies, and cuticular alkane waxes) are drivers of vegetation flammability. It is suggested that Q. coccifera flammability (considered as low to moderate), could increase under a drier scenario in the Mediterranean area. We hypothesize that fire severity would accordingly be intensified in shrubs dominated by this sclerophyllous species without necessarily increasing vulnerability of Q. coccifera to fire since this is a resprouter species after fire and is one of the main pioneer species during post-fire vegetation succession.

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