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Rainforest and savanna landscape dynamics in New Caledonia: Towards a mosaic of stable rainforest and savanna states?



Stable forested environments can be converted to savanna in response to changes in environmental disturbances. New Caledonia is a biodiversity hotspot; significant ecological and economic resources would be lost if forests were turned into savanna by anthropogenic environmental changes. On the landscape scale, systems that have undergone shifts of this kind are characterized by sharp forest–savanna boundaries and mosaic-like distributions of savanna and forest. Understanding the locations and the dynamics of such boundaries is a challenge for ecologists and is critical for landscape management and biodiversity conservation. Using a time series of aerial photographs (1955–2000) and a forest habitat suitability map, we tested the hypothesis that topography and spatial processes, especially those relating to fire spread and seed dispersal, are the main determinants of the spatial distribution of rainforest and savanna in a New Caledonian landscape covering 24 km2. Within the studied landscape, the overall forest coverage decreased by 24% between 1976 and 2000. This was primarily due to the contraction of forests on west-facing slopes, which accounted for about 90% of the total loss. Conversely, the east-facing forests seemed to have contracted extensively prior to the studied period, and were confined to refuges. A habitat suitability index calculated from the landscape's topographical features using generalized additive models accurately predicted both the presence of forests and the probability of forest expansion/contraction. We also provide evidence that spatial processes such as fire spread and seed dispersal limit the expansion and contraction of forests. Our results suggest that rainforests on west-facing slopes in New Caledonia will be progressively destroyed by fire until they are restricted to refuges along thalwegs and creeks, as appears to have already happened for their east-facing counterparts.