Resistance and resilience: can the abrupt end of extreme drought reverse avifaunal collapse?




Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events, such as severe droughts and intense rainfall periods. We explored how the avifauna of a highly modified region responded to a 13-year drought (the ‘Big Dry’), followed by a two-year period of substantially higher than average rainfall (the ‘Big Wet’).


Temperate woodlands in north central Victoria, Australia.


We used two spatially extensive, long-term survey programmes, each of which was repeated three times: early and late in the Big Dry, and in the Big Wet. We compared species-specific changes in reporting rates between periods in both programmes to explore the resistance (the ability to persist during drought) and resilience (extent of recovery post-drought) of species to climate extremes.


There was a substantial decline in the reporting rates of 42–62% (depending on programme) of species between surveys conducted early and late in the Big Dry. In the Big Wet, there was some recovery, with 21–29% of species increasing substantially. However, more than half of species did not recover and 14–27% of species continued to decline in reporting rate compared with early on in the Big Dry. Species' responses were not strongly related to ecological traits. Species resistance to the drought was inversely related to resilience in the Big Wet for 20–35% of the species, while 76–78% of species with low resistance showed an overall decline across the study period.


As declines occurred largely irrespective of ecological traits, this suggests a widespread mechanism is responsible. Species that declined the most during the Big Dry did not necessarily show the greatest recoveries. In already much modified regions, climate extremes such as extended drought will induce on-going changes in the biota.