Mechanisms of rainforest persistence and recruitment in frequently burnt wet tropical eucalypt forests

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Abstract

The role of fire in governing rainforest–eucalypt forest ecotone dynamics is of theoretical interest and has conservation management implications. Several eucalypt forests in the Wet Tropics of Australia have an endangered status due to extensive conversion to rainforest. Rainforest plants are known to survive occasional low intensity fires in the eucalypt forest ecotone. However, the ability of rainforest plants to survive frequent fires remains untested. The timing of rainforest expansion is also a subject of interest, and is generally considered to be delayed until fire has been absent for several years. We used 14 years of data collected across 13 plots in the Wet Tropics of north-eastern Australia to test predictions regarding rainforest seedling recruitment and post-fire regenerative capacity. The 13 plots received different numbers of fires, between zero and five, over the 14-year study. The recruitment of new rainforest plants in the ecotone was most abundant in the initial year after fire. If this post-fire pulse of recruitment is left undisturbed, it can facilitate the subsequent germination of additional rainforest species. The removal of grass cover, whether temporarily in the immediate post-fire environment or once a developing rainforest mid strata shades out grasses, appears crucial to abundant rainforest recruitment. A variety of tropical rainforest species can persist under a frequent fire regime through resprouting. The difference in the mode of resprouting, between ground-level coppicing rainforest plants and canopy resprouting eucalypt forest trees, is the critical mechanism that causes regular fire to maintain an open structure in eucalypt forests. The inability of rainforest species to maintain their height when fires fully scorch their crowns, temporarily resets the forest's open structure and delays the rainforest's ability to dominate through shading out grasses to transform the ecosystem into a closed forest.

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