Impact of storm-burning on Melaleuca viridiflora invasion of grasslands and grassy woodlands on Cape York Peninsula, Australia

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Abstract

This paper examines invasion of grasslands on Cape York Peninsula, Australia, by Melaleuca viridiflora and other woody species, and the role of storm-burning (lighting fires after the first wet season rains) in their maintenance. Trends in disturbance features, fuel characteristics, ground layer composition, and woody plants dynamics under combinations of withholding fire and storm-burning over a 3-year period were measured on 19 plots in three landscape settings. Population dynamics of M. viridiflora are described in detail and 20-year population projections based on transition matrices under different fire regimes generated. Numerous M. viridiflora suckers occurred within the grass layer, increasing each year regardless of fire regime, and were rapidly recruited to the canopy in the absence of fire. Storm-burning had little impact on fuel, ground layer or woody plant composition, but maintained open vegetation structure by substantially reducing recruitment of M. viridiflora suckers to the sapling layer, and by reducing the above-grass-layer abundance of several other invasive woody species. Population projections indicated that withholding fire for 20 years could cause a sevenfold increase of M. viridiflora density on Ti-tree flats, and that annual to triennial storm-burning should be effective at maintaining a stable open vegetation structure. These findings argue against vegetation thickening being an inevitable consequence of climate change. We conclude that a fire regime that includes regular storm-burning can be effective for maintaining grasslands and grassy woodlands being invaded by M. viridiflora.

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