Woody plant expansion is one of the greatest contemporary threats to mesic grasslands of the central United States. In this article, we synthesize more than 20 years of research to elucidate the causes and consequences of the ongoing transition of C4-dominated grasslands to savanna-like ecosystems codominated by grasses and woody plants. This transition is contingent on fire-free intervals, which provide the opportunity for recruitment both of new individuals and of additional shrub and tree species into this grassland. Once shrubs establish, their cover increases regardless of fire frequency, and infrequent fires accelerate the spread of some shrub species. This process has resulted in a new dynamic state of shrub–grass coexistence in the mesic grasslands of North America. Important consequences of this shift in plant life-form abundance include alterations in plant productivity, species diversity, and carbon storage. Without drastic measures such as mechanical removal of shrubs, it is unlikely that management of fire and grazing regimes alone will be sufficient to restore historic grass dominance in these ecosystems.
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