Tree-Ring Based Reconstruction of Historical Fire in an Endangered Ecosystem in the Florida Keys

Lauren A. Stachowiak, Eastern Washington University
Maegen L. Rochner, University of Louisville
Elizabeth A. Schneider, Sacred Heart University
Grant L. Harley, University of Idaho
Savannah A. Collins-Key, University of Tennessee

This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License.


Big Pine Key, Florida, is home to one of Earth’s largest swaths of the critically-endangered dry forests. Known as pine rocklands, this fire-adapted ecosystem must experience regular fire to persist and remain healthy. Pine rocklands are composed of a sole canopy species: the South Florida slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. densa), along with a dense understory of various woody and herbaceous species, and minimal surface moisture and soil development. Slash pine record wildfire activity of the surrounding area via fire scars preserved within the annual tree rings formed by the species. Our study used dendrochronology to investigate the fire history of the pine rocklands on Big Pine Key, specifically within and around the National Key Deer Refuge (NKDR) because it is the largest segment of unfragmented pine rockland on the island. We combined the results found within the NKDR with those of a previous study completed in 2011, and incorporated historical documents and reports of prescribed and natural fires through November 2019 into our evaluation of fire history on Big Pine Key. We conclude that prescribed burning practices are vital to truly restore natural fire behavior, and repeated burning on these islands in the future must be prioritized.