The intermediate disturbance hypothesis does not explain fire and diversity pattern in fynbos

D. W. Schwilk, J. E. Keeley, W. J. Bond

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87 Scopus citations


The intermediate disturbance hypothesis is a widely accepted generalization regarding patterns of species diversity, but may not hold true where fire is the disturbance. In the Mediterranean-climate shrublands of South Africa, called fynbos, fire is the most importance disturbance and a controlling factor in community dynamics. The intermediate disturbance hypothesis states that diversity will be highest at sites that have had an intermediate frequency of disturbance and will be lower at sites that have experienced very high or very low disturbance frequencies. Measures of diversity are sensitive to scale; therefore, we compared species richness for three fire regimes in South African mountain fynbos to test the intermediate disturbance hypothesis Over different spatial scales from 1 m2 to 0.1 hectares. Species diversity response to fire frequency was highly scale-dependent, but the relationship between species diversity and disturbance frequency was opposite that predicted by the intermediate disturbance hypothesis. At the largest spatial scales, species diversity was highest at the least frequently burned sites (40 years between rites) and lowest at the sites of moderate (15 to 26 years between fires) and high fire frequency (alternating four and six year fire cycle). Community heterogeneity, measured both as the slope of the species-area curve for a site and as the mean dissimilarity in species composition among subplots within a site correlated with species diversity at the largest spatial scales. Community heterogeneity was highest at the least frequently burned sites and lowest at the sites that experienced an intermediate fire frequency.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-84
Number of pages8
JournalPlant Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1997


  • Community heterogeneity
  • Fire
  • Fynbos
  • Intermediate disturbance hypothesis
  • Species diversity
  • Species-area curves


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