Animal population decline and recovery after severe fire: Relating ecological and life history traits with expert estimates of population impacts from the Australian 2019-20 megafires

Michelle Ensbey, Sarah Legge, Chris J. Jolly, Stephen T. Garnett, Rachael V. Gallagher, Mark Lintermans, Dale G. Nimmo, Libby Rumpff, Ben C. Scheele, Nick S. Whiterod, John C.Z. Woinarski, Shane T. Ahyong, Caroline J. Blackmore, Deborah S. Bower, Allan H. Burbidge, Phoebe A. Burns, Gavin Butler, Renee Catullo, David G. Chapple, Christopher R. DickmanKatie E. Doyle, Jason Ferris, Diana O. Fisher, Hayley M. Geyle, Graeme R. Gillespie, Matt J. Greenlees, Rosemary Hohnen, Conrad J. Hoskin, Mark Kennard, Alison J. King, Diana Kuchinke, Brad Law, Ivan Lawler, Susan Lawler, Richard Loyn, Daniel Lunney, Jarod Lyon, Josephine MacHunter, Michael Mahony, Stephen Mahony, Rob McCormack, Jane Melville, Peter Menkhorst, Damian Michael, Nicola Mitchell, Eridani Mulder, David Newell, Luke Pearce, Tarmo A. Raadik, Jodi J.L. Rowley, Holly Sitters, Darren G. Southwell, Ricky Spencer, Matt West, Sylvia Zukowski

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Catastrophic megafires can increase extinction risks; identifying species priorities for management and policy support is critical for preparing and responding to future fires. However, empirical data on population loss and recovery post-fire, especially megafire, are limited and taxonomically biased. These gaps could be bridged if species' morphological, behavioural, ecological and life history traits indicated their fire responses. Using expert elicitation that estimated population changes following the 2019–20 Australian megafires for 142 terrestrial and aquatic animal species (from every vertebrate class, one invertebrate group), we examined whether expert estimates of fire-related mortality, mortality in the year post-fire, and recovery trajectories over 10 years/three generations post-fire, were related to species traits. Expert estimates for fire-related mortality were lower for species that could potentially flee or shelter from fire, and that associated with fire-prone habitats. Post-fire mortality estimates were linked to diet, diet specialisation, home range size, and susceptibility to introduced herbivores that damage or compete for resources. Longer-term population recovery estimates were linked to diet/habitat specialisation, susceptibility to introduced species; species with slower life histories and shorter subadult dispersal distances also had lower recovery estimates. Across animal groups, experts estimated that recovery was poorest for species with pre-fire population decline and more threatened conservation status. Sustained management is likely needed to recover species with habitat and diet specialisations, slower life histories, pre-existing declines and threatened conservation statuses. This study shows that traits could help inform management priorities before and after future megafires, but further empirical data on animal fire response is essential.

Original languageEnglish
Article number110021
JournalBiological Conservation
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper. This work was funded by the Australian Government's National Environmental Science Program through the Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023


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