Faunal responses to fire in Australian tropical savannas: Insights from field experiments and their lessons for conservation management

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Aim: Fire is particularly frequent, complex and contentious in the vast tropical savannas of northern Australia, where declines in many threatened species are associated with fire, and substantial areas are under fire management for greenhouse gas abatement. Controlled field experiments are crucial for understanding biodiversity responses, and here I present key insights into faunal responses to fire that have been revealed by them, along with their lessons for fire management. 

Location: Australian monsoonal tropics. 

Methods: Results are synthesized from six replicated fire experiments that have been conducted in Australian savannas and include multispecies assessments of fauna. The synthesis also draws on other fire studies and is presented in the form of five key insights into faunal responses. 

Results: The key insights are as follows: (a) most faunal groups are extremely resilient to fire, with highly contrasting fire regimes often having little or no detectable impact on species abundances, at least in the medium term; (b) the most important effects of fire are typically indirect through habitat modification, even when there is substantial direct mortality; (c) fire intensity is not as important a factor as is widely thought; rather, fire frequency is particularly important; (d) there will always be winners and losers with any fire; and (e) fire is required for the maintenance of diversity. 

Main conclusions: These insights have important implications for conservation management in Australian savannas: management needs to focus on fire-induced changes to habitat suitability, and to consider faunal outcomes at the landscape scale; a combination of frequently (every 2–3 years) and less frequently (every ≥5 years) burned habitat may adequately conserve the great majority of animal species without a need for complex fire mosaics; special management attention is required for frequent-fire losers because of an extremely low representation of longer-unburnt habitat; and fire needs to be actively managed to promote diversity, not excluded. The insights are widely applicable to tropical grassy ecosystems more generally, and some appear to be universal to fire-prone biomes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalDiversity and Distributions
Issue number5
Early online dateNov 2020
Publication statusPublished - May 2021


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