Implications of the spatial dynamics of fire spread for the bistability of savanna and forest

E. Schertzer, A. C. Staver, Simon Asher Levin

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43 Scopus citations


The role of fire in expanding the global distribution of savanna is well recognized. Empirical observations and modeling suggest that fire spread has a threshold response to fuel-layer continuity, which sets up a positive feedback that maintains savanna–forest bistability. However, modeling has so far failed to examine fire spread as a spatial process that interacts with vegetation. Here, we use simple, well-supported assumptions about fire spread as an infection process and its effects on trees to ask whether spatial dynamics qualitatively change the potential for savanna–forest bistability. We show that the spatial effects of fire spread are the fundamental reason that bistability is possible: because fire spread is an infection process, it exhibits a threshold response to fuel continuity followed by a rapid increase in fire size. Other ecological processes affecting fire spread may also contribute including temporal variability in demography or fire spread. Finally, including the potential for spatial aggregation increases the potential both for savanna–forest bistability and for savanna and forest to coexist in a landscape mosaic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)329-341
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of mathematical biology
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Applied Mathematics
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Modeling and Simulation


  • Fire-vegetation feedbacks
  • Percolation
  • Savanna–forest bistability
  • Theoretical ecology


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