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Small mammal populations in a eucalypt forest affected by fire and drought. I. Long-term patterns in an era of climate change

Recher, H.F., Lunney, D. and Matthews, A. (2009) Small mammal populations in a eucalypt forest affected by fire and drought. I. Long-term patterns in an era of climate change. Wildlife Research, 36 (2). p. 143.

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This paper reports a study of ground-dwelling, small mammals in coastal eucalypt forest in south-eastern Australia from 1970 through 2005. During this time, the study area burnt in an intense fire in December 1972 and was partially burnt in November 1980. Both fires were associated with prolonged drought. The mammals studied comprised two dasyurid marsupials, Antechinus agilis and A. swainsonii, two native murid rodents, Rattus fuscipes and R. lutreolus, and the introduced house mouse Mus musculus. After intensive sampling throughout the year from 1970 through 1972 to establish basic ecological and population parameters of the small mammal community, populations were sampled annually during late autumn and early winter before the onset of breeding. There were marked differences in the annual (autumn/winter) abundances of all species; numbers of A. agilis ranged from 4 to 142 individuals; A. swainsonii 0 to 43; R. fuscipes 4 to 54; R. lutreolus 0 to 11; M. musculus 0 to 23. Following the 1972 fire, numbers fell to the lowest level recorded during the study and each population subsequently disappeared from the plot between the 1973 and 1974 winter censuses. The less intense 1980 fire did not lead to extirpation, but numbers of A. agilis, A. swainsonii and R. fuscipes declined as drought conditions persisted through 1983. R. lutreolus occurred consistently only following the fires, when a grassy ground vegetation favoured by this species developed. Similarly, M. musculus colonised within two years of the fires and persisted on the plot for 3-4 years before disappearing. Following the fires, populations of the omnivorous R. fuscipes recovered first followed by the scansorial, insectivorous A. agilis and last by the fossorial, insectivorous A. swainsonii. Two primary conclusions emerged from this study. First, the intense fire of 1972 did not kill all the animals immediately, but led to the disappearance of each species from the plot over 18 months. Thus, intense fire had a delayed but catastrophic impact on small ground-dwelling mammals. The fluctuations in population levels, covering more than an order of magnitude, demonstrate that factors other than fire, such as rainfall and drought, drive the population dynamics of these small mammals. As stability and recovery are not features of local populations, long-term studies of benchmark populations are necessary to manage forest biodiversity.

Publication Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology
Publisher: CSIRO Publishing
Copyright: © CSIRO 2009
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