Fire-driven decline of endemic allosyncarpia monsoon rainforests in Northern Australia

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Abstract

Although contemporary fire regimes in fire-prone Australian savannas are recognised as having major impacts on an array of biodiversity and environmental values, a number of studies have observed significant monsoon rainforest expansion in recent decades. Here we assess the status of a locally extensive endemic monsoon rainforest type, dominated by Allosyncarpia ternata (Myrtaceae), restricted to sandstone terrain including in the World Heritage property, Kakadu National Park. We undertook assessments of: (1) geographic correlates of Allosyncarpia forest distribution; (2) change in canopy cover at 40 representative forest patches at topographically exposed sites with reference to a 60-year aerial photo and fine-scale image archive, and fire mapping data; and (3) structural characteristics associated with sites exhibiting stable, contracting, and increasing canopy cover. Mean canopy cover at sampled forest patches declined by 9.5% over the study period. Most canopy loss occurred at the most fire-susceptible patches. Assessment of structural characteristics at sampled sites illustrated that canopy expansion represented vegetative recovery rather than expansion de novo. The study (1) confirms the vulnerability of exposed margins of this forest type to fire incursions; (2) illustrates the magnitude of, and describes solutions for addressing, the regional conservation management challenge; and (3) serves as a reminder that, in savanna environments, severe fire regimes can substantially outweigh the woody growth-enhancing effects of other regional (e.g., increased rainfall) and global-scale (e.g., atmospheric CO2 fertilisation) drivers.

Original languageEnglish
Article number481
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalForests
Volume8
Issue number12
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 5 Dec 2017

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