CIE Spotlight: Fire regimes and environmental gradients shape vertebrate and plant distributions in temperate eucalypt forests

Michelle B. and Evelyn C.

Authors: Kelly, Luke T.; Haslem, Angie; Holland, Greg J.; Leonard, Steven W. J.; MacHunter, Josephine; Bassett, Michelle; Bennett, Andrew F.; Bruce, Matthew J.; Chia, Evelyn K.; Christie, Fiona J.; Clarke, Michael F.; Di Stefano, Julian; Loyn, Richard; McCarthy, Michael A.; Pung, Alina; Robinson, Natasha; Sitters, Holly; Swan, Matthew; York, Alan

Source: ECOSPHERE, 8 (4), APR 2017

Brief summary of the paper: Fire is a global driver of ecosystem structure, function, and change. Problems common to fire scientists and managers worldwide include a limited knowledge of how multiple taxonomic groups within a given ecosystem respond to recurrent fires, and how interactions between fire regimes and environmental gradients influence biodiversity.

We tested six hypotheses relating to fire regimes and environmental gradients in forest ecosystems using data on birds (493 sites), mammals (175 sites), and vascular plants (615 sites) systematically collected in dry eucalypt forests in southeastern Australia. We addressed each of these hypotheses by fitting species distribution models which differed in the environmental variables used, the spatial extent of the data, or the type of response data.

We found (1) as predicted, fire interacted with environmental gradients and shaped species distributions, but there was substantial variation between species; (2) multiple characteristics of fire regimes influenced the distribution of forest species; (3) common to vertebrates and plants was a strong influence of temperature and rainfall gradients, but contrary to predictions, inter-fire interval was the most influential component of the fire regime on both taxonomic groups; (4) mixed support for the hypothesis that fire would be a stronger influence on species occurrence at a smaller spatial extent; only for vertebrates did scale have an effect in the direction expected; (5) as predicted, vertebrates closely associated with direct measures of habitat structure were those most strongly influenced by fire regimes; and (6) the modeled fire responses for birds were sensitive to the use of either presence–absence or abundance data. These results underscore the important insights that can be gained by modeling how fire regimes, not just fire events, influence biota in forests.

Our work highlights the need for management of fire regimes to be complemented by an understanding of the underlying environmental gradients and key elements of habitat structure that influence resource availability for plants and animals. We have demonstrated that there are general patterns in biotic responses to fire regimes and environmental gradients, but landscape management must continue to carefully consider species, scale, and the quality of biodiversity data to achieve biodiversity conservation in fire-prone forests.