Successional specialization in a reptile community cautions against widespread planned burning and complete fire suppression
Smith, Annabel L
Bull, Christopher Michael
Driscoll, Don A
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Conservation of biodiversity in fire-prone regions depends on understanding responses to fire in animal communities and the mechanisms governing these responses. We collated data from an Australian semi-arid woodland reptile community (4796 individuals captured over 6 years) to: (i) determine the ability of commonly used shorter-term (2 years) surveys to detect reptile responses to time since fire (TSF) and (ii) investigate whether ecological traits of species reliably predicted their responses to fire. Of 16 reptile species analysed, four had responses to TSF consistent with shorter-term surveys and three showed no response to TSF. Nine species had responses to TSF not detected in previous studies using smaller but substantial subsets of the same data. Among the 13 affected species, times of peak abundance ranged from 1 to 50 years after fire. Nocturnal, burrowing species tended to be early successional and leaf-litter dwellers to be late successional, but these were only weak trends. Synthesis and applications. We found only limited support for a generalizable, trait-based model of succession in reptiles. However, our study revealed that the majority of common reptile species in our study region specialize on a post-fire successional stage and may therefore become threatened if homogeneous fire regimes predominate. Our study highlights the importance of interpreting results from time- or sample-limited fire studies of reptiles with the knowledge that many ecological responses may not have been detected. In such cases, an adaptive or precautionary approach to fire management may be necessary.