Hot Topics in Ecology

Managing fire for plant and animal conservation

Putting fire to work for conservation requires local knowledge
Luke Kelly (The University of Melbourne), Angie Haslem (La Trobe University), Brett Murphy (Charles Darwin University)
  • Some studies show that more plant and animal species live in landscapes with a high diversity of fire histories, while others show no such relationship.
  • The variation in fire regimes that will promote plant and animal conservation depends on the type of ecosystem.
  • Fire management will be most effective when it is guided by local knowledge of plants, animals and and the habitats they depend on.
An aerial incendiary line in Kakadu National Park. The creation of fine-grained fire mosaics using prescribed burning is an objective of many fire managers. (Photo: Clay Trauernicht)

Variation in the time between fires, their severity, size and patchiness, and the season in which they occur is called ‘pyrodiversity’. Because plants and animals often depend on resources that vary as a result of fire, it is argued that pyrodiversity will produce a diversity of habitats that can support more species. Some studies demonstrate that more plants and animals live in areas with a high diversity of fire histories, while others show no such relationship, challenging the generality of the hypothesis that ‘pyrodiversity promotes biodiversity’.

Relationships between fire and biodiversity are context-specific, and vary between species, ecosystems and across spatial scales. For example, pyrodiversity increases bird diversity in eucalypt forests and plant-pollinator diversity in mixed-conifer forests. By contrast, unqualified application of pyrodiversity could reduce diversity of vertebrates in mallee vegetation, and ants and termites in savannas are relatively resilient to variation in fire regimes.

Ecological heterogeneity is important for biodiversity conservation, but not all forms of fire-driven variation are desirable. The ability to identify consistent relationships between pyrodiversity and biodiversity is complicated by feedbacks with other ecological processes. For example, climate, grazing and predation strongly affect fire and biodiversity, as well as relationships between them.

How can scientists and decision makers use the pyrodiversity concept for biodiversity conservation? Foremost, it is essential to recognise that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Natural ecosystems contain different species, have different fire regimes and present different fire risks to biodiversity and people. Fire management will be more effective when guided by local knowledge and based on the demonstrated requirements of plants and animals, as well as the habitats they depend on.

Hot Topic Lead Author: 
Name: Luke Kelly
Phone: (03) 9035 7519

Date approved: 
Friday, November 25, 2016 - 19:14
ID Title Location Type
8837 Bradstock R. A., Bedwards M. & Cohn J. S. (2006) The modelled effects of different fire management strategies on the conifer Callitris verrucosa within semi-arid mallee vegetation in Australia. Journal of Applied Ecology 43, 281-292. South-eastern Australia. Fire simulation.
8838 Haslem A., Kelly L. T., Nimmo D. G., Watson S. J., Kenny S. A., Taylor R. S., Avitabile S. C., Callister K. E., Spence-Bailey L. M., Clarke M. F. & Bennett A. F. (2011) Habitat or fuel? Implications of long-term, post-fire dynamics for the development of Murray Mallee region, south-eastern Australia. Space-for-time substitution; correlative.
8839 Keith D. A. & Bradstock R. A. (1994) Fire and competition in Australian heath: a conceptual model and field investigations. Journal of Vegetation Science 5, 347-54. Royal National Park, Sydney NSW. Synthesis; pre-existing gradient.
8840 Tozer M. G. & Bradstock R. A. (2003) Fire-mediated effects of overstorey on plant species diversity and abundance in an eastern Australian heath. Plant Ecology 164, 213-23. Royal National Park, Sydney NSW. Pre-existing contrasts.
8828 Enright N. J., Fontaine J. B., Lamont B. B., Miller B. P. & Westcott V. C. (2014) Resistance and resilience to changing climate and fire regime depend on plant functional traits. Journal of Ecology 102, 1572-81. Geraldton Sandplain region, southwestern Australia. Experimental fires.
8829 Giljohann K. M., McCarthy M. A., Kelly L. T. & Regan T. J. (2015) Choice of biodiversity index drives optimal fire management decisions. Ecological Applications 25, 264-77. Mallee vegetation, south-eastern Australia. Fire simulation.
8830 Penman T. D., Christie F. J., Andersen A. N., Bradstock R. A., Cary G. J., Henderson M. K., Price O., Tran C., Wardle G. M., Williams R. J. & York A. (2011) Prescribed burning: how can it work to conserve the things we value? International Journal of Wild Australia. Narrative review.
8831 Gill A. M. & McCarthy M. A. (1998) Intervals between prescribed fires in Australia: what intrinsic variation should apply? Biological Conservation 85, 161-9. NA. Narrative review.
8832 Bradstock R. A. & Kenny B. J. (2003) An application of plant functional types to fire management in a conservation reserve in southeastern Australia. Journal of Vegetation Science 14, 345-54. Brisbane Water National Park, New South Wales, Australia. Synthesis of empirical data and expert opinion of plant vital attributes.
8833 Burrows N. D. (2008) Linking fire ecology and fire management in south-west Australian forest landscapes. Forest Ecology and Management 255, 2394-406. South-west Australia. Narrative review.
8825 Codding B. F., Bliege Bird R., Kauhanen P. G. & Bird D. W. (2014) Conservation or co-evolution? Intermediate levels of Aboriginal burning and hunting have positive effects on kangaroo populations in Western Australia. Human Ecology 42, 659-69. Little Sandy Desert, Western Australia. Pre-existing contrasts.
8801 Andersen A. N., Ribbons R. R., Pettit M. & Parr C. L. (2014) Burning for biodiversity: highly resilient ant communities respond only to strongly contrasting fire regimes in Australia's seasonal tropics. Journal of Applied Ecology 51, 1406-13. Territory Wildlife Park, Northern Territory, Australia. Manipulative experiment. Long-term data.
8802 Avitabile S. C., Nimmo D. G., Bennett A. F. & Clarke M. F. (2015) Termites are resistant to the effects of fire at multiple spatial scales. PLOS ONE 10, e0140114. Murray Mallee region, south-eastern Australia. Correlative. Space-for-time substitution.
8803 Berry L. E., Lindenmayer D. B. & Driscoll D. A. (2015) Large unburnt areas, not small unburnt patches, are needed to conserve avian diversity in fire-prone landscapes. Journal of Applied Ecology 52, 486-95. Pinkawillinie Conservation Park. Observational study; correlative. 
8804 Bird R. B., Tayor N., Codding B. F. & Bird D. W. (2013) Niche construction and Dreaming logic: Aboriginal patch mosaic burning and varanid lizards (Varanus gouldii) in Australia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280. Great and Little Sandy Deserts bioregions, Western Australia. Space-for-time substitution. Correlative.
8805 Bowman D. M. J. S., Perry G. L. W., Higgins S. I., Johnson C. N., Fuhlendorf S. D. & Murphy B. P. (2016) Pyrodiversity is the coupling of biodiversity and fire regimes in food webs. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 37 Mainly Australia, Africa, western USA Review paper.
8806 Bradstock R. A., Bedward M., Gill A. M. & Cohn J. S. (2005) Which mosaic? A landscape ecological approach for evaluating interactions between fire regimes, habitat and animals. Wildlife Research 32, 409-23. The simulation component draws on data from mallee shrublands and woodlands in southern Australia. Narrative review. Simulation modelling.
8807 Burgess E. E. & Maron M. (2016) Does the response of bird assemblages to fire mosaic properties vary among spatial scales and foraging guilds? Landscape Ecology 31, 687-99. Carnarvon Ranges, Queensland Space-for-time substitution. Correlative.
8808 Clarke M. F. (2008) Catering for the needs of fauna in fire management: science or just wishful thinking? Wildlife Research 35, 385-94. NA. Narrative review.
8809 Davies A. B., Eggleton P., van Rensburg B. J. & Parr C. L. (2012) The pyrodiversity–biodiversity hypothesis: a test with savanna termite assemblages. Journal of Applied Ecology 49, 422-30. Kruger National Park, South Africa. Manipulative experiment. Long-term data.
8810 Farnsworth L. M., Nimmo D. G., Kelly L. T., Bennett A. F. & Clarke M. F. (2014) Does pyrodiversity beget alpha, beta or gamma diversity? A case study using reptiles from semi-arid Australia. Diversity and Distributions 20, 663-73. Murray Mallee region, south-eastern Australia. Space-for-time substitution. Correlative.
8811 Griffiths A. D., Garnett S. T. & Brook B. W. (2015) Fire frequency matters more than fire size: Testing the pyrodiversity–biodiversity paradigm for at-risk small mammals in an Australian tropical savanna. Biological Conservation 186, 337-46. Kakadu National Park. Simulation experiments based on stochastic population viability analysis of four small mammal species. Models built using data from a landscape-scale manipulative fire experiment.
8812 Kelly L. T., Bennett A. F., Clarke M. F. & McCarthy M. A. (2015) Optimal fire histories for biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology 29, 473-81. Murray Mallee region, south-eastern Australia. Space-for-time substitution. Correlative. Simulation modelling.
8813 Kelly L. T., Brotons L. & McCarthy M. A. (2016) Putting pyrodiversity to work for animal conservation. Conservation Biology, DOI:10.1111/cobi.12861. NA. Narrative review.
8814 Kelly L. T., Nimmo D. G., Spence-Bailey L. M., Taylor R. S., Watson S. J., Clarke M. F. & Bennett A. F. (2012) Managing fire mosaics for small mammal conservation: a landscape perspective. Journal of Applied Ecology 49, 412-21. Murray Mallee region, south-eastern Australia. Space-for-time substitution. Correlative.
8815 Lawes M. J., Murphy B. P., Fisher A., Woinarski J. C. Z., Edwards A. C. & Russell-Smith J. (2015) Small mammals decline with increasing fire extent in northern Australia: evidence from long-term monitoring in Kakadu National Park. International Journal of Kakadu National Park. Pre-existing gradient.
8816 Maravalhas J. & Vasconcelos H. L. (2014) Revisiting the pyrodiversity–biodiversity hypothesis: long-term fire regimes and the structure of ant communities in a Neotropical savanna hotspot. Journal of Applied Ecology 51, 1661-8. Reserva Ecologica do IBGE, Brasilia, Brazil. Manipulative experiment.
8817 Martin RE, Sapsis DB. 1992. Fires as agents of biodiversity: pyrodiversity promotes biodiversity. Proceedings of the Symposium on Biodiversity in Northwestern California. Wildland Resources Centre, University of California, Berkeley. NA. Narrative review.
8818 Nimmo D. G., Kelly L. T., Spence-Bailey L. M., Watson S. J., Taylor R. S., Clarke M. F. & Bennett A. F. (2013) Fire Mosaics and Reptile Conservation in a Fire-Prone Region. Conservation Biology 27, 345-53. Murray Mallee region, south-eastern Australia. Space-for-time substitution. Correlative.
8819 Parr C. L. & Andersen A. N. (2006) Patch mosaic burning for biodiversity conservation: a critique of the pyrodiversity paradigm. Conservation Biology 20, 1610-9. NA. Narrative review.
8820 Pastro L. A., Dickman C. R. & Letnic M. (2011) Burning for biodiversity or burning biodiversity? Prescribed burn vs. wildfire impacts on plants, lizards, and mammals. Ecological Applications 21, 3238-53. Simpson Desert, Queensland, central Australia. Before-after control-impact study.
8821 Ponisio L. C., Wilkin K., M'Gonigle L. K., Kulhanek K., Cook L., Thorp R., Griswold T. & Kremen C. (2016) Pyrodiversity begets plant–pollinator community diversity. Global Change Biology 22, 1794-808. Yosemite National Park, California, USA. Space-for-time substitution. Correlative.
8822 Sitters H., Christie F. J., Di Stefano J., Swan M., Penman T., Collins P. C. & York A. (2014) Avian responses to the diversity and configuration of fire age classes and vegetation types across a rainfall gradient. Forest Ecology and Management 318, 13-20. The Otway Ranges, southeast Australia. Space-for-time substitution; correlative.
8823 Taylor R. S., Watson S. J., Nimmo D. G., Kelly L. T., Bennett A. F. & Clarke M. F. (2012) Landscape-scale effects of fire on bird assemblages: does pyrodiversity beget biodiversity? Diversity and Distributions 18, 519-29. Murray Mallee region, south-eastern Australia. Space-for-time substitution. Correlative.
8824 Trauernicht C., Brook B. W., Murphy B. P., Williamson G. J. & Bowman D. M. J. S. (2015) Local and global pyrogeographic evidence that indigenous fire management creates pyrodiversity. Ecology and Evolution 5, 1908-18. Arnhem Plateau, northern Australia. Fire simulation experiments using cellular automata.

Further information about this topic contact:

Luke Kelly
(03) 9035 7519

Chair, Hot Topics Editorial Board
Dr Brett Murphy