The Fire Refuge Value of Patches of a Fire-Sensitive Tree in Fire-prone Savannas: Callitris intratropica in Northern Australia


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Patches of fire-sensitive vegetation often occur within fire-prone tropical savannas, and are indicative of localized areas where fire regimes are less severe. These may act as important fire refugia for fire-sensitive biota. The fire-sensitive tree Callitris intratropica occurs in small patches throughout the fire-prone northern Australian savannas, and is widely seen as an indicator of low-severity fire regimes and of good ecosystem health. Here, we address the question: to what extent do Callitris patches act as refuges for other fire-sensitive biota, and therefore play a broader conservation role? We contrast floral and faunal species composition between Callitris patches and surrounding eucalypt savanna, using three case studies. In the first case study, a floristic analysis of 47 Callitris patches across Western Australia's Kimberley region showed that woody species in these patches were overwhelmingly widespread, fire-tolerant savanna taxa. No species of special conservation concern occurred disproportionately within Callitris patches. Similarly, there was no concentration of fire-sensitive fauna or flora in five Callitris patches in the East Kimberley. Finally, there was no difference in ant species composition among 12 Callitris patches and surrounding eucalypt savannas in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, and there were no fire-sensitive ant species in Callitris patches. Our three case studies from throughout the northwestern Australia provide no evidence that Callitris patches act as important refuges for fire-sensitive flora or fauna within fire-prone eucalypt savannas. This calls into question the notion that Callitris is a strong indicator of general ecosystem health.