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Article << Previous     |     Next >>   Contents Vol 35(1)

The short-term effects of an extensive and high-intensity fire on vertebrates in the tropical savannas of the central Kimberley, northern Australia

Sarah Legge A C D, Stephen Murphy A, Joanne Heathcote A, Emma Flaxman A, John Augusteyn B, Marnie Crossman B

A Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, PMB 925, Derby, WA 6728, Australia.
B Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, PO Box 3130, North Rockhampton, Qld 4701, Australia.
C Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia.
D Corresponding author. Email: sarah@australianwildlife.org
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We report the effects of an extensive (>7000 km2), high-intensity late-dry-season fire in the central Kimberley, Western Australia, on the species richness and abundance of mammals, reptiles and birds. Five weeks after the fire we surveyed 12 sites (six burnt, six unburnt); each pair of sites was closely matched for soil type and vegetation. The species richness and abundance of mammals and reptiles was greater at unburnt sites, especially for mammals (with a 4-fold difference in abundance between burnt and unburnt sites). There was an indication that reptiles immigrated into unburnt patches, but mammals did not. There were also species-specific responses to the fire: Rattus tunneyi and Pseudomys nanus were much more abundant in unburnt sites, whereas Pseudomys delicatulus was caught in equal numbers at burnt and unburnt sites. Diurnal reptiles were more abundant at unburnt sites, but nocturnal reptiles were equally common at burnt and unburnt sites. Avian species richness and overall abundance was similar between burnt and unburnt patches, although a few species showed preferences for one state or the other. The overall high trapping success for mammals (18% across all sites; 28% in unburnt patches) contrasts with the well documented mammal collapse in parts of northern Australia and seems paradoxical given that our study area has experienced the same increase in fire frequency and extent that is often blamed for species collapse. However, our study area has fewer pressures from other sources, including grazing by large herbivores, suggesting that the effects of these pressures, and their interaction with fire, may have been underestimated in previous studies.

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