Arthropod responses to experimental fire regimes in an Australian tropical savannah: ordinal-level analysis

Authors

  • Alan N. Andersen,

    1. 1 Division of Wildlife and Ecology, CSIRO Tropical Ecosystems Research Centre, PMB 44 Winnellie, Northern Territory 0822, Australia (Email: alan.andersen@terc.csiro.au) and 2CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
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    • *Corresponding author.

  • and 1 Warren J. MÜller 2

    1. 1 Division of Wildlife and Ecology, CSIRO Tropical Ecosystems Research Centre, PMB 44 Winnellie, Northern Territory 0822, Australia (Email: alan.andersen@terc.csiro.au) and 2CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
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Abstract

Fire is widely used for conservation management in the savannah landscapes of northern Australia, yet there is considerable uncertainty over the ecological effects of different fire regimes. The responses of insects and other arthropods to fire are especially poorly known, despite their dominant roles in the functioning of savannah ecosystems. Fire often appears to have little long-term effect on ordinal-level abundance of arthropods in temperate woodlands and open forests of southern Australia, and this paper addresses the extent to which such ordinal-level resilience also occurs in Australia’s tropical savannahs. The data are from a multidisciplinary, landscape-scale fire experiment at Kapalga in Kakadu National Park. Arthropods were sampled in the two major savannah habitats (woodland and open forest) using pitfall traps and sweep nets, in 15–20 km2 compartments subjected to one of three fire regimes, each with three replicates: ‘early’ (annual fires lit early in the dry season), ‘late’ (annual fires lit late in the dry season), and ‘unburnt’ (fires absent during the five-year experimental period 1990–94). Floristic cover, richness and composition were also measured in each sampling plot, using point quadrats. There were substantial habitat differences in floristic composition, but fire had no measured effect on plant richness, overall composition, or cover of three of the four dominant species. Of the 11 ordinal arthropod taxa considered from pitfall traps, only four were significantly affected by fire according to repeated-measures ANOVA. There was a marked reduction in ant abundance in the absence of fire, and declines in spiders, homopterans and silverfish under late fires. Similarly, the abundances of only four of the 10 ordinal taxa from sweep catches were affected by fire, with crickets and beetles declining in the absence of fire, and caterpillars declining under late fires. Therefore, most of the ordinal taxa from the ground and grass-layer were unaffected by the fire treatments, despite the treatments representing the most extreme fire regimes possible in the region. This indicates that the considerable ordinal-level resilience to fire of arthropod assemblages that has previously been demonstrated in temperate woodlands and open forests of southern Australia, also occurs in tropical savannah woodlands and open forests of northern Australia.

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