CIE Spotlight: Effects of long-term fire exclusion and frequent fire on plant community composition: A case study from semi-arid shrublands

Tim D.

Tim D.

Authors: Knuckey, Chris G.; Van Etten, Eddie J. B.; Doherty, Tim S.

Source: AUSTRAL ECOLOGY, 41 (8):964-975, DEC 2016

Brief summary of the paper: Time since last fire and fire frequency are strong determinants of plant community composition in fire-prone landscapes.

Our study aimed to establish the influence of time since last fire and fire frequency on plant community composition and diversity of a south-west Australian semi-arid shrubland.

We employed a space-for-time approach using four fire age classes: ‘young’, 8–15 years since last fire; ‘medium’, 16–34; ‘old’, 35–50; and ‘very old’, 51–100; and three fire frequency classes: burnt once, twice and three times within the last 50 years. Species diversity was compared using one-way ANOVA and species composition using PERMANOVA. Soil and climatic variables were included as covariables to partition underlying environmental drivers.

We found that time since last fire influenced species richness, diversity and composition. Specifically, we recorded a late successional transition from woody seeders to long-lived, arid-zone, resprouting shrub species. Fire frequency did not influence species richness and diversity but did influence species composition via a reduction in cover of longer-lived resprouter species – presumably because of a reduced ability to replenish epicormic buds and/or sufficient starch stores.

The distinct floristic composition of old and very old habitat, and the vulnerability of these areas to wildfires, indicate that these areas are ecologically important and management should seek to preserve them.