An experimental test of whether pyrodiversity promotes mammal diversity in a northern Australian savanna.
The increasing awareness that a fire regime that promotes biodiversity in one system can threaten biodiversity in another has resulted in a shift away from fire management based on vague notions of maximising pyrodiversity, towards determining the optimal fire regime based on the demonstrated requirements of target species. We utilised a long-running, replicated fire experiment on Melville Island, the largest island off the northern Australian coast, to test the importance of pyrodiversity for native mammals in a northern Australian savanna landscape. We first developed statistical models to determine how native mammal abundance has responded to nine years of experimentally-manipulated fire frequency. Next, given each species' modelled response to fire frequency, we identified the level of pyrodiversity and optimal mix of fire frequencies that would be expected to maximise mammal diversity and abundance, and minimise extinction risk. This was done for both the entire mammal assemblage and for the mammal species currently declining on Melville Island. Fire frequency was a significant predictor of abundance of the northern brown bandicoot Isoodon macrourus, black-footed tree-rat Mesembriomys gouldii, brush-tailed rabbit-rat Conilurus penicillatus, grassland melomys Melomys burtoni, pale field-rat Rattus tunneyi, and mice/dunnarts but not for the common brushtail possum Trichosurus vulpecula. The geometric mean abundance (GMA) of the entire mammal assemblage was positively associated with pyrodiversity, but peaked at an intermediate value. Hence, maximising pyrodiversity would reduce native mammal assemblage GMA below its potential maximum. The fire history for an area that maximised the entire native mammal assemblage GMA consisted of 57% long-unburnt, 43% triennially burnt and <1% annually burnt. Pyrodiversity did not reduce the extinction risk, nor increase the GMA of declining mammals above that predicted in areas entirely annually or triennially burnt. Synthesis and applications. We demonstrate a useful approach with which to develop fire management strategies based on the demonstrated requirements of target species. By comparing the optimal fire regime identified for the conservation of threatened species and that identified for the entire mammal assemblage, we demonstrate the flexibility of this approach to tailor fire management to address specific management priorities in other fire-prone environments.