CIE Spotlight: Termites Are Resistant to the Effects of Fire at Multiple Spatial Scales

Dale N. and Andrew B.
Dale N. and Andrew B.

Title: Termites Are Resistant to the Effects of Fire at Multiple Spatial Scales

Authors: Avitabile, Sarah C.; Nimmo, Dale G.; Bennett, Andrew F.; Clarke, Michael F.

Source: PLOS ONE, 10 (11), NOV 16 2015

Brief summary of the paper: Termites play an important ecological role in many ecosystems, particularly in nutrient-poor arid and semi-arid environments. We examined the distribution and occurrence of termites in the fire-prone, semi-arid mallee region of south-eastern Australia. In addition to periodic large wildfires, land managers use fire as a tool to achieve both asset protection and ecological outcomes in this region.

Twelve taxa of termites were detected by using systematic searches and grids of cellulose baits at 560 sites, clustered in 28 landscapes selected to represent different fire mosaic patterns. There was no evidence of a significant relationship between the occurrence of termite species and time-since-fire at the site scale. Rather, the occurrence of species was related to habitat features such as the density of mallee trees and large logs (>10 cm diameter). Species richness was greater in chenopod mallee vegetation on heavier soils in swales, rather than Triodia mallee vegetation of the sandy dune slopes.

At the landscape scale, there was little evidence that the frequency of occurrence of termite species was related to fire, and no evidence that habitat heterogeneity generated by fire influenced termite species richness. The most influential factor at the landscape scale was the environmental gradient represented by average annual rainfall.

Although termites may be associated with flammable habitat components (e.g. dead wood), they appear to be buffered from the effects of fire by behavioural traits, including nesting underground, and the continued availability of dead wood after fire.

There is no evidence to support the hypothesis that a fine-scale, diverse mosaic of post-fire age-classes will enhance the diversity of termites. Rather, termites appear to be resistant to the effects of fire at multiple spatial scales.