Date of Award


Degree Name

MS in Biological Sciences


Biological Sciences


College of Science and Mathematics


Nishanta Rajakaruna

Advisor Department

Biological Sciences

Advisor College

College of Science and Mathematics


The impact of forest fires on downstream meadow communities across California is of great ecological interest, as meadows are an important source of biodiversity in this region. Over a century of fire suppression has led to increased forest stand densities, which in turn has resulted in less water availability due to increased transpiration of densely growing trees. This potentially has left less available water for downstream plant communities in meadows. If true, then high mortality wildfires in surrounding forest are predicted to lead to an increase in available downstream moisture where obligate and facultative-wetland taxa increase and dry-adapted upland taxa decline. Here, we test this hypothesis using a dataset of 103 California montane meadows sampled before and after fire over the last 20 years. Using long term meadow monitoring data, compositional turnover is calculated for each plot from before and after fire and then evaluated against the area of 100% mortality, postfire relative-precipitation, meadow type, and proximity of the meadow to fire. We hypothesize that mortality, post-fire precipitation, and site type influence compositional turnover in meadows, regardless of proximity to the burn area. We find that compositional turnover is influenced by mortality but not by meadow type, relative precipitation, or the proximity to fire perimeter. Specifically, turnover was greater in meadows in higher mortality catchments. We then used a combination of linear models and NMDS to determine whether specific functional groups were driving higher turnover rates, expecting increases in obligate and facultative-wetland groups following high mortality fires. However we found no evidence for this. The high variation amongst meadows and their respective fire histories yielded no consistent shifts in community composition. Our findings highlight that landscape scale fire effects can interact strongly affect plant communities outside of fire perimeters, but that this does not lead to predictable shifts in wetland community composition. As fire behavior and drought are projected to become more extreme, we can expect that meadow composition will continue to change but not in predictable ways.