Could biodiversity loss have increased Australia's bushfire threat?

19 Dec 2016

Ecosystem engineers directly or indirectly affect the availability of resources through changing the physical state of biotic and/or abiotic materials. Fossorial ecosystem engineers have been hypothesized as affecting fire behaviour through altering litter accumulation and breakdown, however, little evidence of this has been shown to date. Fire is one of the major ecological processes affecting biodiversity globally. Australia has seen the extinction of 29 of 315 terrestrial mammal species in the last 200 years and several of these species were ecosystem engineers whose fossorial actions may increase the rate of leaf litter breakdown. Thus, their extinction may have altered the rate of litter accumulation and therefore fire ignition potential and rate of spread. We tested whether a reduction in leaf litter was associated with sites where mammalian ecosystem engineers had been reintroduced using a pair-wise, cross-fence comparison at sites spanning the Australian continent. At Scotia (New South Wales), Karakamia (Western Australia) and Yookamurra (South Australia) sanctuaries, leaf litter mass ( 24%) and percentage cover of leaf litter ( 3%) were significantly lower where reintroduced ecosystem engineers occurred compared to where they were absent, and fire behaviour modelling illustrated this has substantial impacts on flame height and rate of spread. This result has major implications for fire behaviour and management globally wherever ecosystem engineers are now absent as the reduced leaf litter volumes where they occur will lead to decreased flame height and rate of fire spread. This illustrates the need to restore the full suite of biodiversity globally.