Foster CN, PS Barton, CF Sato, JT Wood, CI Macgregor and DB Lindenmayer (2015) Herbivory and fire interact to affect forest understory habitat, but not its use by small vertebrates. ANIMAL CONSERVATION (In press)

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Herbivory and fire are two disturbances that often co-occur, but studies of their interactive effects are rare outside of grassland ecosystems. We experimentally tested the interactive effects of prescribed fire and macropod herbivory on forest understory vegetation and its vertebrate fauna. Fire and herbivory interacted synergistically to affect forest understory vegetation, with palatable plants showing poor post-fire recovery in unfenced sites compared with herbivore exclusion sites. Despite this strong interactive effect on vegetation, small vertebrates responded to the individual, and not the interactive effects of disturbance. The native insectivorous mammal Antechinus stuartii was more frequently encountered on large herbivore exclusion sites, as was the introduced European rabbit. In contrast, the small skink Lampropholis delicata was more common on sites with high densities of large herbivores. Skinks, snakes and European rabbits were also more active on burnt than unburnt sites. Our results suggest that it may be necessary to manage the macropod herbivore population after fire to prevent the decline of palatable plants, and maintain the dense habitat required by some small mammals. However, as the invasive rabbit was most active in macropod-free sites after fire, any management must include control of both types of herbivores. A mix of understory densities may also need to be maintained to ensure the persistence of species preferring more open habitats. Our study demonstrates that interactive effects of disturbance on vegetation communities may not lead to predictable effects on animals, and highlights the importance of considering both multiple stressors, and multiple species, in the management of disturbance regimes.