Effects of high-severity fire drove the population collapse of the subalpine Tasmanian endemic conifer Athrotaxis cupressoides

Authors


Abstract

Athrotaxis cupressoides is a slow-growing and long-lived conifer that occurs in the subalpine temperate forests of Tasmania, a continental island to the south of Australia. In 1960–1961, human-ignited wildfires occurred during an extremely dry summer that killed many A. cupressoides stands on the high plateau in the center of Tasmania. That fire year, coupled with subsequent regeneration failure, caused a loss of ca. 10% of the geographic extent of this endemic Tasmanian forest type. To provide historical context for these large-scale fire events, we (i) collected dendroecological, floristic, and structural data, (ii) documented the postfire survival and regeneration of A. cupressoides and co-occurring understory species, and (iii) assessed postfire understory plant community composition and flammability. We found that fire frequency did not vary following the arrival of European settlers, and that A. cupressoides populations were able to persist under a regime of low-to-mid severity fires prior to the 1960 fires. Our data indicate that the 1960 fires were (i) of greater severity than previous fires, (ii) herbivory by native marsupials may limit seedling survival in both burned and unburned A. cupressoides stands, and (iii) the loss of A. cupressoides populations is largely irreversible given the relatively high fuel loads of postfire vegetation communities that are dominated by resprouting shrubs. We suggest that the feedback between regeneration failure and increased flammability will be further exacerbated by a warmer and drier climate causing A. cupressoides to contract to the most fire-proof landscape settings.

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