Australian Journal of Botany Australian Journal of Botany Society
Southern hemisphere botanical ecosystems
RESEARCH FRONT

Fire, people and ecosystem change in Pleistocene Australia

Christopher N. Johnson
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

School of Biological Sciences, Private Bag 55, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tas. 7001, Australia. Email: c.n.johnson@utas.edu.au

Australian Journal of Botany 64(8) 643-651 https://doi.org/10.1071/BT16138
Submitted: 5 July 2016  Accepted: 28 August 2016   Published: 14 October 2016

Abstract

Since the 1960s, Australian scientists have speculated on the impact of human arrival on fire regimes in Australia, and on the relationship of landscape fire to extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna of Australia. These speculations have produced a series of contrasting hypotheses that can now be tested using evidence collected over the past two decades. In the present paper, I summarise those hypotheses and review that evidence. The main conclusions of this are that (1) the effects of people on fire regimes in the Pleistocene were modest at the continental scale, and difficult to distinguish from climatic controls on fire, (2) the arrival of people triggered extinction of Australia’s megafauna, but fire had little or no role in the extinction of those animals, which was probably due primarily to hunting and (3) megafaunal extinction is likely to have caused a cascade of changes that included increased fire, but only in some environments. We do not yet understand what environmental factors controlled the strength and nature of cascading effects of megafaunal extinction. This is an important topic for future research.

Additional keywords: Holocene, intensification, megafaunal extinction, prehistory.


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