A landscape-scale, applied fire management experiment promotes recovery of a population of the threatened Gouldian finch, Erythrura gouldiae, in Australia's tropical savannas

Sarah Legge, Stephen Garnett, Kim Maute, Joanne Heathcote, Steve Murphy, John Casimir Zichy-Woinarski, Lee B Astheimer

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    Abstract

    Fire is an integral part of savanna ecology and changes in fire patterns are linked to biodiversity loss in savannas worldwide. In Australia, changed fire regimes are implicated in the contemporary declines of small mammals, riparian species, obligate-seeding plants and grass seed-eating birds. Translating this knowledge into management to recover threatened species has proved elusive. We report here on a landscape-scale experiment carried out by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) on Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary in northwest Australia. The experiment was designed to understand the response of a key savanna bird guild to fire, and to use that information to manage fire with the aim of recovering a threatened species population. We compared condition indices among three seedeating bird species-one endangered (Gouldian finch) and two non-threatened (long-tailed finch and double-barred finch) - from two large areas (≥ 2,830 km2) with initial contrasting fire regimes ('extreme': frequent, extensive, intense fire; versus 'benign': less frequent, smaller, lower intensity fires). Populations of all three species living with the extreme fire regime had condition indices that differed from their counterparts living with the benign fire regime, including higher haematocrit levels in some seasons (suggesting higher levels of activity required to find food), different seasonal haematocrit profiles, higher fat scores in the early wet season (suggesting greater food uncertainty), and then lower muscle scores later in the wet season (suggesting prolonged food deprivation). Gouldian finches also showed seasonally increasing stress hormone concentrations with the extreme fire regime. Cumulatively, these patterns indicated greater nutritional stress over many months for seed-eating birds exposed to extreme fire regimes.We tested these relationships by monitoring finch condition over the following years, as AWC implemented fire management to produce the 'benign' fire regime throughout the property. The condition indices of finch populations originally living with the extreme fire regime shifted to resemble those of their counterparts living with the benign fire regime. This research supports the hypothesis that fire regimes affect food resources for savanna seed-eating birds, with this impact mediated through a range of grass species utilised by the birds over different seasons, and that fire management can effectively moderate that impact. This work provides a rare example of applied research supporting the recovery of a population of a threatened species.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article numbere0137997
    Pages (from-to)1-27
    Number of pages27
    JournalPLoS One
    Volume10
    Issue number10
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 7 Oct 2015

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