Pyric Herbivory and the Nexus Between Forage, Fire and Native and Introduced Large Grazing Herbivores in Australian Tropical Savannas

Angela M. Reid, Brett P. Murphy, Tom Vigilante, David M.J.S. Bowman

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Abstract

Earth’s tropical savannas typically support high biomass of diverse grazing herbivores that depend on a highly fluctuating resource: high-quality forage. An annual wet–dry cycle, fire and herbivory combine to influence forage quality and availability throughout the year. In the savannas of northern Australia, a depauperate suite of large native (marsupial) herbivores (wallaroos [Osphranter spp.] and the agile wallaby [Notamacropus agilis]) compete for resources with non-native large herbivores introduced in the late nineteenth century, particularly bovines (feral and managed cattle [Bos spp.] and feral water buffalo [Bubalus bubalis]) that now dominate the landscape. Anecdotal reports of recent population declines of large macropods and negative impacts of bovines highlight the need to better understand the complex relationship between forage, fire and abundance of native and introduced large herbivores. The pyric herbivory conceptual model, which posits complex feedbacks between fire and herbivory and was developed outside Australia, predicts that native and introduced large herbivores will both respond positively to post-fire forage production in Australian savannas where they co-occur. We used grazing exclosures, forage biomass and nutrient analyses and motion-sensor camera-trapping to evaluate the overall robustness of the pyric herbivory model in the Australian context, specifically whether forage quantity and quality are impacted by herbivory, season and fire activity, and which forage attributes most influence large grazing herbivore abundance. Forage quantity, as measured by live, dead and total herbaceous biomass and proportion of biomass alive, was higher inside herbivore exclosures, even at relatively low densities of herbivores. Forage quality, as measured by fibre content, was not affected by herbivory, however, crude protein content of live herbaceous biomass was greater outside herbivore exclosures. Recent fire was an important predictor of all measures of forage quantity and quality. Recent fire occurrence decreased overall quantity (biomass) but increased quality (decreased fibre content and increased crude protein content); late dry season fires resulted in forage with the highest crude protein content. The predictions of the pyric herbivory conceptual model are consistent with observations of the feeding behaviour of introduced bovines and some large macropods in northern Australian savannas, lending support to the global generality of pyric herbivory in fire-prone grassy biomes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)610–626
Number of pages17
JournalEcosystems
Volume26
Issue number3
Early online date8 Nov 2022
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2023

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