Cyclones, fire, and termites: The drivers of tree hollow abundance in northern Australia's mesic tropical savanna

Leigh Ann Woolley, Brett P. Murphy, Ian J. Radford, John Westaway, John C.Z. Woinarski

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    Tree hollows are a vital wildlife feature, whose abundance and availability has declined in many regions due to broad-scale vegetation clearance, timber-harvesting, and disturbance such as fire. In the temperate forests and woodlands of eastern and southern Australia, the loss of large, old trees and associated tree hollows has severely impacted populations of hollow-dependent fauna. In the tropical savannas of northern Australia, many hollow-dependent mammals are in decline, and habitat simplification and resultant hollow limitation have been suggested as potential contributors to these declines. Hence, we sought to quantify the abundance of hollows, and identify the key drivers of this abundance in northern Australian savannas. We modelled the environmental and ecological correlates of hollow abundance across an extensive area of eucalypt savanna in Australia's Northern Territory. We found that hollow abundance was significantly related to tree characteristics (size, species) and broad environmental gradients (annual rainfall, soil depth). Key disturbances – cyclones, fire, and termites – substantially disrupted these relationships and led to high variation in hollow abundance, even at a local scale. Hollow abundance across the study area was high by both Australian and global standards (hollows >5 cm entrance diameter: 88 ha–1, hollows >10 cm: 23 ha–1) and greatest in high rainfall areas (associated with the abundance of large eucalypts). Many arboreal mammal species in northern Australia have now contracted to higher rainfall parts of their former range (where hollows are at highest density); however such higher rainfall areas are also more likely to be affected by stochastic cyclonic events that can severely reduce the abundance of hollows. Hollow abundance was also affected by recent fire history and, in many areas, the current regime of frequent, high intensity fires will lead to marked reduction in this resource.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)146-159
    Number of pages14
    JournalForest Ecology and Management
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2018


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