Edge fires drive the shape and stability of tropical forests

Laurent Hébert-Dufresne, Adam F.A. Pellegrini, Uttam Bhat, Sidney Redner, Stephen Wilson Pacala, Andrew M. Berdahl

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review

13 Scopus citations


In tropical regions, fires propagate readily in grasslands but typically consume only edges of forest patches. Thus, forest patches grow due to tree propagation and shrink by fires in surrounding grasslands. The interplay between these competing edge effects is unknown, but critical in determining the shape and stability of individual forest patches, as well the landscape-level spatial distribution and stability of forests. We analyze high-resolution remote-sensing data from protected Brazilian Cerrado areas and find that forest shapes obey a robust perimeter–area scaling relation across climatic zones. We explain this scaling by introducing a heterogeneous fire propagation model of tropical forest-grassland ecotones. Deviations from this perimeter–area relation determine the stability of individual forest patches. At a larger scale, our model predicts that the relative rates of tree growth due to propagative expansion and long-distance seed dispersal determine whether collapse of regional-scale tree cover is continuous or discontinuous as fire frequency changes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)794-803
Number of pages10
JournalEcology letters
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Bistability
  • edge effects
  • fire
  • forest
  • savanna
  • scaling


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