Conservation value of low fire frequency in tropical savannas: Ants in monsoonal northern Australia



The conservation values of ‘old-growth’ forests in landscapes subject to repeated disturbance by fire or logging have received considerable conservation attention. However, little is known of the conservation values of old-growth sites in ecosystems with an evolutionary history of highly frequent disturbance. Here we address the value of low fire frequency (<1 fire/10 years) in tropical savannas, the world's most fire-prone biome, in terms of ant biodiversity. We do this by comparing savanna ant communities within the Territory Wildlife Park (TWP) near Darwin in the Australian monsoonal tropics, which has experienced a low incidence of fire over 25 years due to active fire exclusion, with those of adjacent (outside) sites experiencing the ambient fire regime of burning every 2–5 years. Ants were sampled using terrestrial and arboreal pitfall traps at 16 sites, eight each inside and outside TWP. More than 16 000 ants were recorded during the study, representing a total of 98 ant species from 30 genera. More species in total were recorded outside (90) than inside (74) TWP, but there was no difference in mean site species richness or abundance, and overall species composition was similar. All species recorded inside TWP are common and widespread throughout the savanna landscapes of the broader region, in the absence of active fire exclusion. Low fire frequency at the Territory Wildlife Park therefore does not appear to have enhanced regional ant conservation values. Our findings reinforce the importance of targeting fire regimes that are clearly linked to positive conservation outcomes, rather than assuming a need for maximum ‘pyrodiversity’.