Barton PS, K Ikin, AL Smith, C MacGregor and DB Lindenmayer (2014) Vegetation structure moderates the effect of fire on bird assemblages in a heterogeneous landscape. LANDSCAPE ECOLOGY 29(4):703-714

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Ecological theory predicting the impact of fire on ecological communities is typically focused on post-disturbance recovery processes or on disturbance-diversity dynamics. Yet the established relationship between vegetation structure and animal diversity could provide a foundation to predict the short-term effects of fire on biodiversity, but has rarely been explored. We tested the hypothesis that fire effects on bird assemblages would be moderated by increasing vegetation structure. We examined bird assemblages in burnt and unburnt sites at 1 and 6 years after a wildfire, and compared richness and composition responses among and within three structurally distinct vegetation types in the same landscape: heath, woodland and forest. We found that short-term changes in bird assemblage composition were largest in simple heath vegetation and smallest in complex forest vegetation. The short-term change in species richness was larger in forest than in heath. We also found that among-site assemblage variability was greater shortly after fire in heath and woodland vegetation compared with forest vegetation. Our results indicate that complexity in vegetation structure, particularly overstorey cover, can act as an important moderator of fire effects on bird assemblages. Mechanisms for this response include a greater loss of structure in vegetation characterised by a single low stratum, and a proportionally greater change in bird species composition despite a smaller absolute change in species richness. We discuss our results in the context of a new conceptual model that predicts contrasting richness and composition responses of bird assemblages following disturbance along a gradient of increasing vegetation structure. This model brings a different perspective to current theories of disturbance, and has implications for understanding and managing the effects of fire on biodiversity in heterogeneous landscapes.