Tropical riparian forests in danger from large savanna wildfires.
Tropical savannas are known for the fire-prone ecosystems, yet, riparian evergreen forests are another important landscape feature. These forests usually remain safe from wildfires in the wet riparian zones. With global changes, large wildfires are now more frequent in savanna landscapes, exposing riparian forests to unprecedented impact. In 2017, a large wildfire spread across the Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park, an iconic UNESCO site in central Brazil, raising concerns about its impact on the fire-sensitive ecosystems. By combining remote sensing analysis of Google Earth images (2003-2019) with detailed field information from 36 sites, we assessed wildfire impacts on riparian forests. For this, we measured the structure of trees, saplings and herbaceous plants, as well as topsoil variables. Since 2003, all riparian forests had canopy cover above 90%, but after 2017, canopy cover dropped to 20% in some forests, indicating large variation in wildfire damage. A closer look in the field revealed that, on average, the wildfire killed 52% of adult trees and 87% of tree saplings in flooded forests. In non-flooded forests, impacts on adult trees were negligible, but fire killed 75% of tree saplings. Opportunistic vines and the invasive grass Melinis minutiflora were already present in severely disturbed flooded forests. In all forests, impacts on many ecosystem variables were related to canopy damage, a variable measurable from satellite. Overall, seasonally flooded riparian forests were the most severely impacted, possibly due to the relatively thinner barks of their trees. Synthesis and applications. Our findings reveal how riparian forests embedded in tropical savanna landscapes are in danger from large wildfires. The destruction of some forests has opened space for new plant species that may propel a shift to an alternative ecosystem state. Riparian forests are habitat of large savanna animals and their loss could affect entire trophic networks. Managing wildfires and invasive grasses locally is probably the best strategy to maintain riparian forests resilient. As wildfire regimes intensify in tropical savanna landscapes, our findings stress the need for an integrated management that considers riparian forests as a vulnerable element of the system.