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Keywords:

  • ant;
  • fire regime;
  • fire resilience;
  • frequent fire;
  • small mammal

Abstract

Tropical savannas are the world's most fire-prone biome, and savanna biotas are generally well adapted to frequent fire. However, in northern Australia there are concerns that recent increases in the frequency and extent of high-intensity fires are causing substantial declines in regional biodiversity values. In this paper we use two well-studied and contrasting faunal groups, ants and small mammals, as case studies for reviewing faunal responses to fire in Australian savannas. The Australian savanna ant fauna is dominated by arid-adapted taxa that are highly resilient to frequent fire and are not considered to be threatened by prevailing fire regimes. Indeed, frequent fire promotes ant diversity because it maintains an open habit that makes the dominant arid-adapted taxa feel at home. Long-term fire exclusion reduces ant diversity due to a marked decline in arid-adapted taxa, and favours highly generalized, more shade-tolerant taxa. In contrast, many small mammal species of high conservation value are highly sensitive to frequent fire, and there are widespread concerns that their populations are threatened by current fire management. Many of the species have shown dramatic population declines over recent decades, and, although the causes are poorly understood, there is little doubt that fire is an important contributing factor. It is likely that fire is acting synergistically with other underlying causes of decline, particularly predation by feral cats. The overall resilience of most savanna animal species in relation to frequent fire suggests that they are secure under all but the most extreme fire regimes. However, it is clear that more fire-sensitive groups such as small mammals need special fire management attention. This needs to involve less frequent and finer-scale burning, along with the protection of some large, infrequently burnt source areas.