Natural disturbances are key processes in the vast majority of ecosystems and a range of ecological theories have been developed in an attempt to predict biotic responses to them. However, empirical support for these theories has been inconsistent and considerable additional work remains to be done to better understand the response of biodiversity to natural disturbance. We tested predictions from the intermediate disturbance hypothesis and the habitat accommodation model of succession for reptile responses to fire history and a single major fire event. We focused our work on a broad range of vegetation types spanning sedgeland to temperate rainforest located within a national park in south-eastern Australia. We found no significant relationships between reptile species richness and the number of fires over the past 35 years, the time since the last fire, or the severity of a major fire in 2003. Thus, we found no strong evidence to support the intermediate disturbance hypothesis.
A correspondence analysis of reptile assemblages revealed a gradient in species responses to fire history. However, we found limited evidence for an ordered succession of reptiles. Nor could the responses of individual species be readily predicted from life history attributes. Thus, our findings were generally not consistent with predictions from the habitat accommodation model of succession. A possible explanation for the absence of a predictable sequence of recovery following disturbance might be the rapidity of post-fire recovery of many components of native vegetation cover that were found to be important for reptiles (e.g. the extent of grass cover). This would have limited the time for early successional conditions to prevail and limited opportunities for species associated with such conditions. We found that most reptile species responses were much more strongly linked to vegetation type than fire variables, emphasizing a need to understand relationships with vegetation before being able to understand possible fire effects (if and where they exist). We found the disturbance concepts we examined were limited in their ability to accurately predict reptile responses to past fire history or the impacts of a single major fire in 2003. Practical management might be best guided not by disturbance theory, but by carefully setting objectives to meet conservation goals for particular individual species of reptiles.