Substrate and low intensity fires influence bacterial communities in longleaf pine savanna

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Bacterial communities associated with vegetation-soil interfaces have important roles in terrestrial ecosystems. These bacterial communities, studied almost exclusively in unburnt ecosystems or those affected by rare, high-intensity wildfires, have been understudied in fire-frequented grasslands and savannas. The composition of ground-level bacterial communities was explored in an old-growth pine savanna with a centuries-long management history of prescribed fires every 1-2 years. Using 16S metabarcoding, hypotheses were tested regarding differences in bacterial families of litter and soil surface substrates in patches of ground layer vegetation that were naturally burnt or unburnt during landscape-level prescribed fires. Litter/soil substrates and fire/no fire treatments explained 67.5% of bacterial community variation and differences, driven by relative abundance shifts of specific bacterial families. Fires did not strongly affect plant or soil variables, which were not linked to bacterial community differences. Litter/soil substrates and the naturally patchy frequent fires appear to generate microhabitat heterogeneity in this pine savanna, driving responses of bacterial families. Prescribed fire management may benefit from considering how fire-altered substrate heterogeneity influences and maintains microbial diversity and function, especially in these fiery ecosystems. Frequent, low-intensity fires appear ecologically important in maintaining the diverse microbial foundation that underlie ecosystem processes and services in fire-frequented habitats.

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Scientific reports

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