Simulating the effects of different spatio-temporal fire regimes on plant metapopulation persistence in a Mediterranean-type region.
Spatio-temporal fire regimes are likely to shift with changes in land use and climate. Such a shift in the disturbance regime has been proposed from recent reconstructions of the regional fire history in the Mediterranean-type woodlands and shrublands of Western Australia which suggest that fire was much more frequent before 1930 (local fire intervals of 3-5 years) than it is today (local fire intervals of 8-15 years). To investigate the potential biodiversity consequences of such changes in fire regime for fire-killed woody species, we developed a spatial model for the serotinous shrub Banksia hookeriana that grows on sand dunes of the Eneabba Plain, Western Australia. We sought to identify the envelope of fire regimes under which the spatially separated populations in this species are able to persist, and whether this encompasses the fire regimes proposed by recent fire-history reconstructions. We tested two fire frequency-size distribution scenarios: (1) a scenario where fire size depends on the spatial patch configuration; and (2) a scenario depending also on available fuel (time since last fire), which reduces fire size at short inter-fire intervals. In scenario 1, metapopulation persistence was only likely for mean ignition intervals at the landscape scale of >6 years. In scenario 2, persistence was likely for the whole range of fire interval distributions at the landscape scale suggested by the empirical data. However, persistence was almost impossible if the mean return fire interval at the local scale (i.e. for individual dunes) is <8 years. Synthesis and applications. We have demonstrated that this plant metapopulation can potentially persist over a wide range of temporal fire regimes at the landscape scale, so long as there are buffering mechanisms at work (e.g. feedback between fire spread and vegetation age) which reduces the probability of large fires at short intervals. Our findings demonstrate that at least some parts of the landscape must burn substantially less frequently on average than suggested by the empirical fire reconstructions for the early and pre-European period if populations of fire-killed woody species such as B. hookeriana are to be conserved.