Wildlife Research Wildlife Research Society
Ecology, management and conservation in natural and modified habitats

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 and 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

Wildlife Research 35(1) 33-43 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WR07016
Submitted: 9 February 2007  Accepted: 23 January 2008   Published: 17 March 2008


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.


Andersen A. N., Cook G. D., and Williams R. J. (Eds) (2003). ‘Fire in Tropical Savannas: The Kapalga Experiment.’ Ecological Studies 169. (Springer-Verlag: New York.)

Begg R. J Martin K. C. Price N. F. 1981 The small mammals of Little Nourlanjie Rock, NT. V. The effects of fire. Australian Wildlife Research 8 515 527 DOI

Bowman D. Fensham R. 1991 Response of a monsoon-rainforest boundary to fire protection, Weipa, northern Australia. Australian Journal of Ecology 16 111 118 DOI

Bowman D. Panton W. 1993 Decline of Callitris intratropica in the Northern Territory: implications for pre- and post-colonisation fire regimes. Journal of Biogeography 20 373 381 DOI

Braithwaite R. W. 1987 Effects of fire regimes on lizards in the wet–dry tropics of Australia. Journal of Tropical Ecology 3 265 275

Braithwaite R. W. Griffiths A. D. 1994 Demographic variation and range contraction in the northern quoll, Dasyurus hallucatus (Marsupialia: Dasyuridae). Wildlife Research 21 203 217

Braithwaite R. W. Griffiths A. D. 1996 The paradox of Rattus tunneyi: endangerment of a native pest. Wildlife Research 23 1 21 DOI

Corbett L., Andersen A., and Muller W. (2003). Terrestrial vertebrates. In ‘Fire in Tropical Savannas: The Kapalga Experiment’. (Eds A. Andersen, G. Cook and R. Williams.) pp. 126–152. (Springer-Verlag: New York.)

Douglas M., Townsend S., and Lake P. (2003). Streams. In ‘Fire in Tropical Savannas: The Kapalga Experiment’. (Eds A. Andersen, G. Cooke and R. Williams.) pp. 59–78. (Springer-Verlag: New York.)

Firth R. Woinarski J. Noske R. 2006 Home range and den characteristics of the brush-tailed rabbit-rat (Conilurus penicillatus) in the monsoonal tropics of the Northern Territory Wildlife Research 33 397 407 DOI

Fisher R. Vigilante T. Yates C. Russell-Smith J. 2003 Patterns of landscape fire and predicted vegetation response in the North Kimberley region of Western Australia. International Journal of Wildland Fire 12 369 379 DOI

Franklin D. 1999 Evidence of disarray amongst granivorous birds assemblages in the savanna of northern Australia, a region of sparse human settlement. Biological Conservation 90 53 98 DOI

Franklin D. C. Whitehead P. J. Pardon G. Matthews J. McMahon P. McIntyre D. 2005 Geographic patterns and correlates of the decline of granivorous birds in northern Australia. Wildlife Research 32 399 408 DOI

Friend G. R. 1987 Population ecology of Mesembriomys gouldii (Rodentia: Muridae) in the wet–dry tropics of the Northern Territory. Australian Wildlife Research 14 293 303 DOI

Green K. Sanecki G. 2006 Immediate and short-term responses of bird and mammal assemblages to a subalpine wildlife in the Snowy Mountains, Australia. Austral Ecology 31 673 681 DOI

James C. 2003 Response of vertebrates to fenceline contrasts in grazing intensity in semi-arid woodlands of eastern Australia. Austral Ecology 28 137 151 DOI

Kerle J. 1998 The population dynamics of a tropical possum, Trichosurus vulpecula arnhemensis. Wildlife Research 25 171 181 DOI

Kerle J. A. Burgman M. A. 1984 Some aspects of the ecology of the mammal fauna of the Jabiluka area, Northern Territory. Australian Wildlife Research 11 207 222 DOI

Kutt A. Woinarski J. 2007 The effects of grazing and fire on vegetation and the vertebrate assemblage in a tropical savanna woodland in north-eastern Australia. Journal of Tropical Ecology 23 95 106 DOI

Legge S. (2006). Biodiversity conservation on Broadmere Station, NT. Part II: rapid fauna survey. Unpublished report, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Perth, WA.

Letnic M. 2003 The effects of experimental patch burning and rainfall on small mammals in the Simpson Desert, Queensland. Wildlife Research 30 547 563 DOI

Masters P. 1996 The effects of fire-driven succession on reptiles in spinifex grassland at Uluru National Park, Northern Territory. Wildlife Research 23 39 48 DOI

Maxwell S., Burbidge A. A., and Morris K. (1996). ‘Action Plan for Australian Marsupials and Monotremes.’ (Department of Environment and Heritage: Canberra.)

Murphy S., and Legge S. (2005). Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary fire management plan. Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

Pardon L. G. Brook B. W. Griffiths A. D. Braithwaite R. W. 2003 Determinants of survival for the northern brown bandicoot under a landscape-scale fire experiment. Journal of Animal Ecology 72 106 115 DOI

Price O. Rankmore B. Milne D. Brock C. Tynan C. Kean L. Roeger L. 2005 Regional patterns of mammal abundance and their relationship to landscape variables in eucalypt woodlands near Darwin, northern Australia. Wildlife Research 32 435 446 DOI

Russell-Smith J. Bowman D. 1992 Conservation of monsoon rainforest isolates in the Northern Territory, Australia. Biological Conservation 59 51 63 DOI

Russell-Smith J. Ryan P. G. Cheal D. C. 2002 Fire regimes and the conservation of sandstone heath in monsoonal northern Australia: frequency, interval, patchiness. Biological Conservation 104 91 106 DOI

Russell-Smith J. Yates C. Edwards A. Allan G. E. Cook G. D. Cooke P. Craig R. Heath B. Smith R. 2003 Contemporary fire regimes of northern Australia, 1997–2001: change since Aboriginal occupancy, challenges for sustainable management. International Journal of Wildland Fire 12 283 297 DOI

Sutherland E. Dickman C. 1999 Mechanisms of recovery after fire by rodents in the Australian environment: a review. Wildlife Research 26 405 419 DOI

Torre I. Diaz M. 2004 Small mammal abundance in Mediterranean post-fire habitats: a role for predators? Acta Oecologica 25 137 143 DOI

Trainor C. Woinarski J. 1994 Responses of lizards to three experimental fires in the savanna forests of Kakadu National Park. Wildlife Research 21 131 148 DOI

Whelan R. (1995). ‘The Ecology of Fire.’ (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.)

Williams M. Cook G. Gill A. Moore P. 1999 Fire regime, fire intensity and tree survival in a tropical savanna in northern Australia. Australian Journal of Ecology 24 50 59 DOI

Williams R., Griffiths A., and Allan G. (2002). Fire regimes and biodiversity in the savannas of northern Australia. In ‘Flammable Australia: the Fire Regimes and Biodiversity of a Continent’. (Eds R. Bradstock, J. Williams and A. Gill.) pp. 281–304. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.)

Williams R., Müller W., Wahren C.-H., Setterfield S., and Cusack J. (2003a). Vegetation. In ‘Fire in Tropical Savannas: The Kapalga Experiment’. (Eds A. Andersen, G. Cooke and R. Williams.) pp. 79–106. (Springer-Verlag: New York.)

Williams R. J. Woinarski J. C. Z. Andersen A. N. 2003 b Fire experiments in northern Australia: contributions to ecological understanding and biodiversity conservation in tropical savannas. International Journal of Wildland Fire 12 391 402 DOI

Woinarski J. C. Z. Ash A. 2002 Responses of vertebrates to pastoralism, military land use and landscape position in an Australian tropical savanna. Austral Ecology 27 311 323 DOI

Woinarski J. C. Z. Brock C. Fisher A. Milne D. Oliver B. 1999 Response of birds and reptiles to fire regimes on pastoral land in the Victoria River District, Northern Territory. The Rangeland Journal 21 24 38 DOI

Woinarski J. C. Z. Milne D. J. Wanganeen G. 2001 Changes in mammal populations in relatively intact landscape of Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. Austral Ecology 26 360 370 DOI

Woinarski J. C. Z. Risler J. Kean L. 2004 Response of vegetation and vertebrate fauna to 23 years of fire exclusion in a tropical Eucalyptus open forest, Northern Territory, Australia. Austral Ecology 29 156 176 DOI

Woinarski J., Milne D., Palmer C. A, F., Ward S., Risler J., Brennan K., and Berghout M. (2005). Fauna monitoring at Nitmiluk fire plots: baseline sampling, 2005. Biodiversity Conservation Unit, Department of Natural Resources, Environment & the Arts, Darwin.

Export Citation