Climate change is increasing the frequency and extent of high-severity disturbance, with potential to alter vegetation community composition and structure in environments sensitive to tipping points between alternative states. Shrub species display a range of characteristics that promote resistance and resilience to disturbance, and which yield differential post-disturbance outcomes. We investigated differences in shrub patch size and stem density in response to variations in fire severity, vegetation community, and post-disturbance reproductive strategies in Sky Island forested ecosystems in the southwestern United States. Patterns in shrub structure reflect the effects of fire severity as well as differences among species with alternate post-fire reproductive strategies. Increased fire severity correlates with larger patch sizes and greater stem densities; these patterns are observed across multiple fire events, indicating that disturbance legacies can persist for decades. High severity fire produces the largest shrub patches, and variance in shrub patch size increases with severity. High severity fire is likely to promote expansion of shrub species on the landscape, with implications for future community structure. Resprouting species have the greatest variability in patch structure, while seeding species show a strong response to disturbance: resprouting species dominate at low disturbance severities, and obligate seeders dominate high severity areas. Differential post-fire reproductive strategies are likely to generate distinct patterns of vegetation distribution following disturbance, with implications for community composition at various scales. Shrub species demonstrate flexible responses to wildfire disturbance severity that are reflected in shrub patch dynamics at small and intermediate scales.
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