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Keywords:

  • aerial photography;
  • feral animal impact;
  • forest decline;
  • landscape change;
  • multimodel inference

Abstract

Melaleuca swamp forests form a fringe around seasonally inundated freshwater flood plains of Kakadu National Park (KNP). Previous studies based on the analysis of aerial photography reported an increase in woody plant cover on these flood plains, apparently associated with changed fire regimes, increased rainfall and possibly increased atmospheric CO2. In opposition to this woody vegetation encroachment past high densities of feral buffalo in the 1960 to mid 1980s changed the hydrology of the KNP flood plains, allowing increased penetration of saltwater causing extensive death of Melaleuca forests. Climate change has increased sea levels and there is concern that this will threaten the freshwater ecosystems of KNP. We hypothesized that Melaleuca forests that were previously impacted by high densities of feral buffalo have continued to decline because of salinization driven by sea level rise. We examined this hypothesis by overlaying georeferenced aerial photography taken in 1964, 1984 and 2004 in a geographic information environment, and then constructing generalized linear fixed effects and mixed effects models to rank the statistical strength of different drivers of Melaleuca forest contraction. We found that there has been a 5% overall contraction of Melaleuca forests over the last 50 years on our study sites, although the amount of contraction varied both geographically and temporally. The amount of Melaleuca forest contraction was greatest during the 1984–2004 interval, when buffalo densities were low. Contraction was greatest on the Melaleuca forest edges, at low-lying sites, and where high densities of buffalo were apparent in 1964. These results suggest the enduring legacy effect of past buffalo damage will amplify the effects of sea level rise on the flood plains of KNP.