International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Inability of fire to control vegetation dynamics in low-productivity mulga (Acacia aneura)-dominated communities of eastern Australia

J. L. Silcock A B C , J. Drimer B , J. Fraser B and R. J. Fensham A B
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Qld 4072, Australia.

B Queensland Herbarium, Department of Environment and Resource Management, Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Mount Coot-tha Road, Toowong, Qld 4066, Australia.

C Corresponding author. Email: j.silcock@uq.edu.au

International Journal of Wildland Fire 26(10) 896-905 https://doi.org/10.1071/WF17011
Submitted: 23 January 2017  Accepted: 25 July 2017   Published: 10 October 2017

Abstract

Reduced fire frequency and severity associated with livestock grazing are cited as a cause of woody plant encroachment and thickening in rangelands, but such paradigms are difficult to test experimentally owing to limited opportunities to burn. Mulga (Acacia aneura) dominates 25% of the Australian continent and epitomises this quandary. We measured the effect of rare wildfires on tree and shrub mortality and subsequent regeneration in mulga-dominated communities to critically examine prevailing but unsubstantiated paradigms of vegetation structural change. Mortality of mature mulga trees was positively correlated with fire severity, which was negatively correlated with tree basal area per hectare. High-severity fires killed the majority of mulga, but only occurred in more open areas, whereas low-severity fires typical of many mulga communities did not kill substantial proportions of mature mulga. The majority of mulga saplings were killed across all sites regardless of fire severity. Seedling germination was stimulated by fire, but not dependent on it. Green turkey bush (Eremophila gilesii) was the only shrub species with >50% mortality across all sites. Combined with the rarity of fire events in the historical record, our results, particularly limited fire mortality and enhanced post-fire seedling recruitment, suggest that the role of fire in shaping vegetation structure in mulga-dominated communities has been overstated. The decoupling of fire and vegetation structure is consistent with emerging regional studies in low-productivity semiarid environments.

Additional keywords: Queensland, rangelands, semiarid shrublands, wildfire, woody vegetation dynamics.


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