After the 'black summer' fires: faunal responses to megafire depend on fire severity, proportional area burnt and vegetation type.

Published online
18 Apr 2024
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Miritis, V. & Dickman, C. R. & Nimmo, D. G. & Doherty, T. S.
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Climate change and human activities have disrupted historical fire regimes, leading to complex and far-reaching impacts on global ecosystems. Despite extensive research in fire ecology, studies exploring vertebrate responses to megafires, and to nuanced fire characteristics, remain limited. We collected camera trap data 3-27 months following Australia's 2019-20 'Black Summer' megafires from 30 burnt sites and 10 unburnt sites. Our data included 14 animal species/groups, encompassing mammalian predators, small and medium-sized mammals, large herbivores, and birds. We used generalised additive mixed models to assess the influence of time-since-the-fires, burn status, fire severity, proportional area burnt, and vegetation type on species' activity. Models that included fire variables were well-supported for all species. The proportional cover of low-moderate or high-extreme severity fire had substantial support for five species, particularly herbivores, which generally showed a preference for burnt sites but at differing fire severities. The proportional area burnt, disregarding severity, was well supported for four species. At highly burned sites fox activity peaked shortly after the fires while small to medium-sized mammal activity increased more gradually. Vegetation type strongly influenced the response of four species to fire; in particular, wet forest birds preferred unburnt areas. Policy implications. We document variable short- to medium-term responses of a range of species to fire which could help guide management interventions. We demonstrate that animal species' responses to fire are diverse and better captured using broader landscape scale fire variables. We found that species were strongly influenced by proportional area burnt, fire severity and vegetation type. Introduced foxes were attracted to recently burnt areas, so timely predator control may benefit vulnerable prey species. Wet forest species were sensitive to fires and could benefit from preservation and restoration of these habitats. Some species exploited low-moderate severity burnt areas, while others preferred high-severity burns. This suggests that species will face diverse challenges and opportunities in future extreme fire events. We emphasise the importance of using multi-faceted approaches to account for the complex responses of co-occurring species to fire events.

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