The Rangeland Journal The Rangeland Journal Society
Rangeland ecology and management
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Frequent fires reduce the nutritional quality of Sorghum stipoideum seed, a keystone food resource for the Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae)

Anna Weier A , Ian J. Radford B E , Alan Manson C , Lesley J. Durrans D and Michael J. Lawes A
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, NT 0909, Australia.

B Department of Parks and Wildlife, PO Box 942, Lot 248 Ivanhoe Road, Kununurra, WA 6743, Australia.

C KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Private Bag X9059, Pietermaritzburg, 3200, South Africa.

D PO Box 746, Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal, 3245, South Africa.

E Corresponding author. Email: Ian.Radford@DPaW.wa.gov.au

The Rangeland Journal 39(2) 105-112 https://doi.org/10.1071/RJ16124
Submitted: 28 November 2016  Accepted: 9 February 2017   Published: 14 March 2017

Abstract

Fire is a pervasive feature of the tropical savannas of northern Australia. Increasingly extensive and intensive fires have had an adverse effect on grass layer diversity. Reduced grass species diversity and abundance are important correlates of the decline of granivores in these tropical savannas. The Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae), an endangered species that is endemic to northern Australia, is particularly vulnerable to changes to the grass layer as its diet comprises only grass seed, and it relies mostly on Sorghum stipoideum during the breeding season. Although this annual grass species is abundant at breeding sites, the finches do not always choose to breed at these sites, raising the possibility that seed quality may vary from year to year. This study examines the effect of fire (time since last fire; fire frequency) on soil fertility and seed nutritional quality. We hypothesise that recently burnt sites produce a flush of soil nutrients and Sorghum stipoideum seed at these sites is of higher nutritional quality. Furthermore, we posit that frequently burnt sites become depleted of soil nutrients and their seeds are of lower nutritional quality. There was a significant increase in inorganic nitrogen in soils following a fire, but no notable change in other soil nutrients. Contingent on this increase in soil inorganic nitrogen, seed nutrient levels, particularly essential proteins, were greater at sites that were recently, but infrequently burnt. Fires appear to affect soil nitrogen and in turn seed nutrition, providing a plausible explanation for why Gouldian finches choose recently, but infrequently burnt breeding sites.

Additional keywords: annual grass species, essential proteins, fire regime, seed nutrition, soil nitrogen, tropical savanna.


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