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Fire and cattle disturbance affects vegetation structure and rain forest expansion into savanna in the Australian monsoon tropics

  • Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation


Aims To detect changes in area and vegetation dynamics of monsoon rain forests in relation to disturbance and an observed wetting trend. Location The Mitchell Plateau and the Bougainville Peninsula (north Kimberley, Australia). Methods Geo‐rectified aerial photographs acquired in 1949 and 1969 and a pre‐existing map from 2005 were used to detect changes in rain forest boundaries. To ground‐truth rain forest expansion, we established 20 transects running across rain forest‐savanna boundaries and recorded plant species, stand basal area, grass and rock cover, cattle impact, and canopy cover. Generalised linear models and Akaike's information criterion were used to detect differences in these variables between locations. Results On the Bougainville Peninsula average fire frequency was low (0.11 per year) and cattle entirely absent, while on the Mitchell Plateau average fire frequency was high (0.58 per year), and cattle were common and associated with lower seedling density in savannas. Rain forests expanded more on the Bougainville Peninsula (69%), where patches were bigger and more convoluted, than on the Mitchell Plateau (9%). Rain forest expansion was positively associated with rainfall and topographic complexity, and on level terrain it occurred only on the Bougainville Peninsula. Rain forests were floristically and structurally similar in the two locations, while savannas on the Bougainville Peninsula had denser vegetation and more abundant rain forest elements. The frequency distribution of canopy cover was bimodal on the Mitchell Plateau, signalling the presence of two distinct vegetation states, and unimodal on the Bougainville Peninsula, consistent with the blending of the two states. Main conclusions Wetting trends are likely strong drivers of rain forest expansion, but at a landscape scale their effect is probably modulated by fire activity and the presence of mega‐herbivores, which may also be pivotal in maintaining sharp floristic and structural distinctions between rain forests and savannas.
Fire and cattle disturbance affects vegetation structure
and rain forest expansion into savanna in the Australian
monsoon tropics
Stefania Ondei
Lynda D. Prior
Tom Vigilante
David M.J.S. Bowman
School of Biological Sciences, University of
Tasmania, Hobart, TAS, Australia
Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal
Corporation, Kalumburu, WA, Australia
Bush Heritage Australia, Melbourne, VIC,
Stefania Ondei, School of Biological
Sciences, University of Tasmania, Hobart,
TAS, Australia.
Editor: Jack Williams
Aims: To detect changes in area and vegetation dynamics of monsoon rain forests
in relation to disturbance and an observed wetting trend.
Location: The Mitchell Plateau and the Bougainville Peninsula (north Kimberley,
Methods: Geo-rectified aerial photographs acquired in 1949 and 1969 and a pre-
existing map from 2005 were used to detect changes in rain forest boundaries. To
ground-truth rain forest expansion, we established 20 transects running across rain
forest-savanna boundaries and recorded plant species, stand basal area, grass and rock
cover, cattle impact, and canopy cover. Generalised linear models and Akaikes infor-
mation criterion were used to detect differences in these variables between locations.
Results: On the Bougainville Peninsula average fire frequency was low (0.11 per year)
and cattle entirely absent, while on the Mitchell Plateau average fire frequency was
high (0.58 per year), and cattle were common and associated with lower seedling den-
sity in savannas. Rain forests expanded more on the Bougainville Peninsula (69%),
where patches were bigger and more convoluted, than on the Mitchell Plateau (9%).
Rain forest expansion was positively associated with rainfall and topographic complex-
ity, and on level terrain it occurred only on the Bougainville Peninsula. Rain forests
were floristically and structurally similar in the two locations, while savannas on the
Bougainville Peninsula had denser vegetation and more abundant rain forest elements.
The frequency distribution of canopy cover was bimodal on the Mitchell Plateau, sig-
nalling the presence of two distinct vegetation states, and unimodal on the Bougain-
ville Peninsula, consistent with the blending of the two states.
Main conclusions: Wetting trends are likely strong drivers of rain forest expansion,
but at a landscape scale their effect is probably modulated by fire activity and the
presence of mega-herbivores, which may also be pivotal in maintaining sharp floris-
tic and structural distinctions between rain forests and savannas.
Australian tropics, cattle impact, climate change, fire, historical aerial photography, monsoon
rain forests, tropical savannas
DOI: 10.1111/jbi.13039
Journal of Biogeography. 2017;112. ©2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Top-down disturbances, such as fire and mega-herbivory, have been
postulated to shape vegetation structure and in some cases cause
departure from climate-constrained potential vegetation (Bond,
2005). A prime example of this concerns the distribution of rain for-
ests and savannas. Globally, the geographic distribution of these
biomes is strongly controlled by climate, with rain forests, charac-
terised by high canopy cover and an absence of grass, dominant in
high rainfall areas, and savannas, distinguished by a continuous grass
layer and sparse trees, found in lower rainfall regions (Lehmann,
Archibald, Hoffmann, & Bond, 2011). However, in landscapes with
intermediate rainfall (1,0002,000 mm year
), rain forests and
savannas can coexist in the same landscape, forming complex
mosaics (Staver, Archibald, & Levin, 2011). Contrasting fire regimes
are considered key factors influencing these vegetation types and
maintaining sharp boundaries between the two (Dantas, Hirota, Oli-
veira, & Pausas, 2016). Rain forests are rarely burnt, because the
dense canopy cover creates a moist microclimate and little flam-
mable grass is present (Little, Williams, Prior, Williamson, & Bowman,
2012), limiting the incursion of fire (Just, Hohmann, & Hoffmann,
2015). When fires do occur, they are typically mild surface fires in
leaf litter (Cochrane, 2003). By contrast, savannas are characterised
by high degree of disturbance, such as frequent fires (Huntley &
Walker, 2012). Compared to rain forest species, savanna plants are
better adapted to tolerate (e.g. thick bark) and recover (aerial buds)
from fire (Lawes, Midgley, & Clarke, 2013; Ondei, Prior, Vigilante, &
Bowman, 2015; Pausas, 2015). Dynamic global vegetation models
suggest that some tropical savannas have the climatic potential to
become forests in the absence of fire (Bond, Woodward, & Midgley,
2005). Several small-scale experiments have demonstrated substan-
tial changes in species diversity and stem density in response to fire
exclusion, although this was not necessarily associated with conver-
sion to rain forest (e.g. Bowman & Panton, 1995; Woinarski, Risler,
& Kean, 2004).
Another common disturbance is grazing by mega-herbivores. In the
Australian monsoon tropics, introduced cattle, pigs, and buffalo can
damage rain forest patches through trampling vegetation and wallow-
ing in moist soils (Petty et al., 2007; Russell-Smith & Bowman, 1992).
Experimental exclosures of medium and large herbivores in Mexican
and Brazilian rain forests resulted in higher seedling recruitment and
survival (Camargo-Sanabria, Mendoza, Guevara, Mart
ınez-Ramos, &
Dirzo, 2015; Fleury, Silla, Rodrigues, Do Couto, & Galetti, 2015), due to
the removal of the direct negative effects of browsing on plant biomass
and the indirect effects of trampling (Fleury et al., 2015). While her-
bivory can affect woody vegetation floristics and structure (Midgley,
Lawes, & Chamaille-Jammes, 2010), it is unclear if mega-herbivore dis-
turbance substantially influences rain forest-savanna boundaries at a
landscape-level (Petty et al., 2007). Furthermore, a strong interaction
between megaherbivores and fire has been posited by palaeoecologi-
cal studies. Following the extinction of Australian megafauna, the con-
sequent increase in fire activity could have led to a shift from broadleaf
to more flammable vegetation (Rule et al., 2012).
Factors affecting tree growth rates, particularly water availability
and nutrient availability, influence the rate of forest expansion (Mur-
phy & Bowman, 2012), because fast-growing plants require shorter
disturbance-free time to grow tall enough to resist the negative
effects of fire disturbance (Hoffmann et al., 2012). A trend in
increasing precipitation, possibly amplified by enhanced CO
, has
been postulated as the cause for the expansion of rain forests into
savannas in northwestern Australia (Banfai & Bowman, 2006; Bow-
man, Murphy, & Banfai, 2010). Significant soil fertility gradients are
also found across most rain forest-savanna boundaries (Dantas,
Batalha, & Pausas, 2013). Indeed, a controversial alternative perspec-
tive is that disturbance-based feedbacks on rain forest-savanna
boundaries are a consequence of the established vegetation type,
rather than a primary determinant (Lloyd & Veenendaal, 2016; Vee-
nendaal et al., 2015). Consequently, controlling for edaphic factors
and climatic trends is essential when evaluating the effect of fire
and megaherbivore disturbance on rain forest-savanna dynamics.
Classical experiments designed to determine the effects of exclu-
sion of fire and herbivores on rain forests and savannas at the land-
scape level are often impractical, given the spatial and temporal
scales involved and the difficulty in having adequate replication
(Andersen et al., 1998). A realistic alternative to tackle large-scale
ecological problems is to take advantage of conditions naturally
occurring in a landscape by performing natural experiments (Dia-
mond, 1983). This approach requires careful site selection, to ensure
locations share a common or known environmental history (Johnson
& Miyanishi, 2008), and some treatment combinations can be absent,
due to the rarity of naturally long-unburnt areas (Andersen et al.,
1998). Nonetheless, natural experiments can successfully test the
effects of disturbance on vegetation in fire prone environments (e.g.
Vigilante, Bowman, Fisher, Russel-Smith, & Yates, 2004; Woinarski,
Risler, & Kean, 2004).
We used a natural experiment to investigate rain forest expan-
sion and vegetation structure in two extensive locations of the north
Kimberley (Western Australia): the Bougainville Peninsula (hence-
forth the Peninsula) and the Mitchell Plateau (henceforth the Pla-
teau). These two locations share similar climate and geologic
substrate, but experience strikingly different levels of disturbance:
the Plateau has a high frequency of extensive savanna fires and a
large, unmanaged population of cattle, whereas the Peninsula is
rarely burnt and is cattle-free. This contrast allows us to determine
the combined effects of fire and cattle on rain forest-savanna
dynamics while controlling for climate and geology. We used histori-
cal aerial photography (1949, 1969, and 2005), which provided time
depth in forest boundary dynamics across the entire study areas.
We then ground-truthed these analyses using transects that
recorded variation in tree species populations across selected bound-
aries. Specifically, we hypothesised that rain forest expansion has
occurred in the north Kimberley in response to the wetting trend in
northern Australia over the last century (Bowman et al., 2010),
together with increasing atmospheric CO
, but that the expansion is
strongly influenced by the combined effects of fire and megaherbi-
vores. We also predicted that areas subject to high disturbance are
characterized by smaller and more compact rain forest patches, sepa-
rated from the surrounding savanna by sharp boundaries, whereas in
cattle- and fire-free locations we expected to find bigger and more
convoluted patches, with wider ecotones containing a mix of rain
forest and savanna species, signs of ongoing rain forest expansion.
This natural experiment therefore contributes to the broader debates
about tropical savanna-forest boundaries, by testing the role of fire
and megafauna disturbance as drivers of rain forest change in time
and space.
Study area
The study was conducted on the Wunambal Gaambera (WG)
Country in the north Kimberley, Western Australia, which occupies
an area of 9,144 km
. It is defined by the Wanjina Wunggurr
Uunguu Native Title Determination, and represents the traditional
lands of the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal people. The geology
of the region is characterised by deeply weathered sandstones
and basaltic base rocks of Precambrian age, often capped by Cain-
ozoic laterites (Beard, 1976). Rainfall occurs almost entirely during
the summer wet season (November to April), while the rest of the
year is almost rain-free (Beard, 1976). Current average annual
rainfall across the region ranges from 1,200 to 1,400 mm. A wet-
ting trend has been detected since the beginning of the 20th cen-
tury, with an increment in average annual rainfall of 4050 mm
every 10 years since the late 1940s (Bureau of Meteorology,
2016). The vegetation is predominantly biodiverse tropical savan-
nas: Eucalyptus tetrodontaE. miniata savannas are found on the
laterite mesas and hills, while E. tectificaE. grandifolia savannas
are common on deeper, clay soils on the plains. Small patches of
semi-deciduous rain forests are interspersed in the savanna, typi-
cally found in fire-protected locations (Beard, 1976; Vigilante
et al., 2004).
The study was centred on two of the locations with the highest
density of rain forests in the north Kimberley: the Plateau and the
Peninsula (Figure 1). These locations have similar geology (basalt
and laterite) and mean annual rainfall (range 1,300
1,400 mm year
), but contrasting management histories. The Pla-
teau (754 km
) has a high fire frequency (average times burnt:
0.5 year
; data from North Australia Fire Information (NAFI), based
on the 15-year time period from 20002014). Conversely, the
Peninsula (298 km
), connected with the mainland only by a narrow
strip of sand, has a much lower fire frequency (average times burnt:
0.08 year
). The fire regime of the entire study area has undergone
dramatic shifts in the last 100 years. Wunambal Gaambera people
practiced landscape scale burning up until the 1940s and 1950s,
when they moved off their country to settlements. The next
50 years were dominated by unmanaged wildfires moving in from
adjacent areas or started by lightning. Since 2009, Aboriginal land
management programs have initiated prescribed burning programs.
While pastoral leases have been established in parts of the north
Kimberley since the 1950s, the study area has never been formally
used for pastoral purposes. A 1976 biological survey of the Plateau
did not record any cattle in the area (Wilson, 1981). However, a bio-
logical survey of Kimberley rain forests in 1987 found evidence of
cattle on the Plateau, but not on the Peninsula (Mckenzie & Belbin,
Rain forest-savanna boundary change
Digitized aerial photographs of the study locations were obtained for
the years 1949 (black and white; 1:50,000) and 1969 (black and
white; 1:83,300) and georectified, using the spline tool in ArcGIS 10
Georeferencing Toolbox to correct for obvious misalignments. Rain
forests were mapped at a common scale of 1:2,500, adapting the
method described in Bowman, Walsh, and Milne (2001), based on
grid cell classification. We overlaid a 30 930 m lattice grid to the
aerial photographs and, for each investigated year, grid cells were
manually classified as rain forestor other, based on the vegeta-
tion type occupying the highest proportion of the cell. To compare
the historic rain forest extent with a more recent distribution (dry
season of 2005), we used a pre-existing, validated map of the north
Kimberley rain forests produced using the same methods and
resolution (30 930 m) by Ondei, Prior, Williamson, Vigilante, and
Bowman (2017) (Figure 2).
Patch characteristics and location
A map of the rain forest patches was produced for the years 1949,
1969, and 2005, obtained by merging the contiguous cells classified
as rain forest. For each patch we calculated area, perimeter, dis-
tance from the coastline, and topographic position index (TPI). The
latter was calculated as per Ondei et al. (2017), which classifies the
land in four different topographic categories: valleys, slopes, ridges
and flat areas. We analysed the effect on expansion of both patch
size and shape, and defined the degree of patch convolution by cal-
culating patch fractal dimension (2 9ln(0.25 9perimeter)/ln(area)),
which ranges from 1 (compact) to 2 (highly convoluted) (Hargis,
Bissonette, & David, 1998).
Correlates of rain forest expansion
To investigate the environmental drivers of rain forest expansion in
the time periods 19491969 and 19692005, we selected all grid
cells located within 60 m (equivalent to two times the map resolu-
tion) of the patch perimeter at the first year of each time period
(1949 or 1969). For each selected grid cell, we calculated distance
from the coastline, TPI, and the distance from and the size, convolu-
tion, and location of the nearest patch. We also calculated aspect,
obtained from a 30-m Digital Elevation Model (DEM), and the bear-
ing angle, defined as the angular direction of the cell relative to the
patch of origin. Both bearing angle and aspect were decomposed
into their NorthSouth (cosine of angle) and EastWest (sine of
angle) components.
Vegetation structure
To determine vegetation structure and composition across the rain
forest-savanna transition zones, we established a total of 20 tran-
sects, 10 placed on the Plateau and 10 on the Peninsula. Transects
were all located on different patches and at a minimum distance of
500 m. Each transect was 300 m long, and consisted of five
10 920 m plots placed at regular intervals along it. The first plot
was located 60 m inside the rain forest, to measure structure and
floristic composition of the forest core; the second was at the patch
boundary, capturing, when present, the characteristics of the eco-
tone, while the remaining three were placed in the vegetation out-
side the rain forest. The patch boundary was visually determined as
by Hennenberg, Goetze, Kouam
e, Orthmann, and Porembski (2005),
based on discontinuities in floristic composition and canopy cover.
For each plot we recorded grass cover, rock cover, canopy cover,
number of seedlings, and signs of cattle presence. Canopy cover was
measured by taking hemispherical photographs using a fish-eye lens
(Nikon AF Fisheye NIKKOR 10.5 mm), taking pictures at 1 m height
and calculating the percentage of closed canopy using the software
CAN-EYE ( The number of seed-
lings was counted on a 1 920 m sub-plot. The presence of cattle
was ranked on a qualitative scale, from 0indicating no sign of cat-
tle, to 3, high cattle impact, based on the presence of tracks and
excrements on the ground and partially browsed plants. For each
adult tree, operationally defined as having a diameter at breast
height (DBH) >5 cm and being taller than 2 m, we recorded species
name, height, and DBH. Total basal area was calculated for each
plot. We also recorded the species identity of every tree and shrub
in the plot. When species identification was not possible in the field,
voucher samples were collected and identified at the Northern Terri-
tory Herbarium, where they have been lodged. To determine
whether a species was a rain forest element we relied on the floristic
classification of Kenneally, Keighery, and Hyland (1991) for the north
Kimberley rain forests. Each plot was then assigned to one of the
following vegetation classes based on the mapping for 1949, 1969,
and 2005: stable rain forestplots were those mapped as rain for-
estduring all the investigated years; converted to rain forest in
1969were plots mapped as savannain 1949 and rain forestin
1969; converted to rain forest in 2005plots were mapped as sa-
vanna in 1969and rain forestin 2005; stable savannaplots
were mapped as savannaduring the entire length of the study. Fire
frequency was calculated for each plot based on 15-year data
obtained from NAFI (available at, based on
MODIS products displayed at a resolution of 250 m.
Statistical analyses
All analyses were performed using the software R Studio ver.
1.0.136 (R Core Team, 2013). To assess variation in patch size and
convolution we employed generalized linear models (GLMs), using
the gamma family of distribution (link =log). Patch size and convo-
lution were response variables and year and location were explana-
tory variables. For each location we calculated differences in the
proportion of rain forests located on different topographic settings
in the years 1949, 1969, and 2005.
To evaluate how environmental variables affected the conversion
from savanna to rain forest in each time period, we randomly
selected a subset of 5,000 grid cells within 60 m of a rain forest
patch (selected as described above), stratified for vegetation type.
FIGURE 1 Location of the two study
sites in the north Kimberley. The Mitchell
Plateau extends in latitude from 14.457°S
to 14.893°S and in longitude from
125.722°E to 125.949°E. The Bougainville
Peninsula stretches from 13.897°Sto
14.146°S in latitude and from 125.975°E
to 126.225°E in longitude. Dashed lines
represent isohyets (mm year
). The inset
shows the location of the study sites
within Australia
We employed GLMs, considering the response variable as binary: 1
savanna converted to rain forest, or 0savanna remained
savanna, and using binomial models (link logit). We tested the rela-
tionship between the response variable and TPI, distance from the
coastline, location, area, and convolution of the nearest patch, dis-
tance from the nearest patch, and NorthSouth and EastWest com-
ponents of both aspect and bearing angle. Spatial autocorrelation
was assessed by plotting semi-variograms of model residuals. As only
few cells underwent a conversion from rain forest to savanna, no
analyses on that vegetation change were performed.
To determine differences in fire activity between the two study
locations, we employed GLMs and the Gaussian distribution. Differ-
ences in cattle impact between vegetation classes located on the Pla-
teau were tested using ordinal logistic regression (package MASS;
Venables & Ripley, 2002) and the influence of cattle impact on the
number of seedlings was investigated using the Poisson distribution.
GLMs were also used to test whether the disturbance levels and
environmental and vegetation characteristics recorded in each plot
and listed below varied between locations (Plateau or Peninsula) for
plots within the same vegetation class (e.g. stable savanna). For
these analyses the two classes converted to rain forest in 1969
and converted to rain forest in 2005were merged due to the lim-
ited number of plots. When required, data were log transformed to
meet the assumption of normality. Within the GLMs, the Poisson
distribution (log link) was used for count data such as the number of
seedlings, number of trees, species richness. The binomial distribu-
tion (logit link) was used to assess differences between locations in
the proportion of rain forest and savanna species per plot, while the
Gaussian distribution (identity link) was used for the response vari-
able basal area. Differences in grass cover and rock cover were
assessed using ordinal logistic regression.
For all the modelling we employed complete subset regression
and Akaikes information criterion (AIC; Burnham & Anderson, 2002)
to evaluate models. To do this, candidate sets were constructed with
models containing all possible combinations of explanatory variables,
without interactions. Akaike weights (w
) were calculated for each
FIGURE 2 Example of aerial
photography of the Mitchell Plateau and
Bougainville Peninsula used in the
analyses. Polygons obtained from merging
grid cells classified as rain forestare
shown. Percentage of change between
each pair of photographs is indicated
model to indicate the probability that a given model is the best in
the candidate set (Burnham & Anderson, 2004). The importance of
single variables (w+) was calculated as the sum of w
of the models
within the set in which the variable occurred. Variables were consid-
ered important predictors if w+exceeded 0.73, as per Murphy et al.
(2010). Summaries of all analyses are reported in Tables S1.3 and
S1.4 in Appendix S1.
To compare variation in canopy across the rain forest-savanna
boundary in the Plateau and the Peninsula, we calculated the aver-
age canopy cover profile for each location, as described in Fig. S2.1
in Appendix S2. To detect the presence of distinct vegetation states
we also tested differences in canopy cover modality employing
latent class analysis (Hirota, Holmgren, Van Nes, & Scheffer, 2011).
To do this, we analysed the frequency distribution of canopy cover
data, pooled for all plots within the vegetation transects at each
location. We compared the fit of models with 1, 2 or 3 modes using
the Bayesian information criterion. More details are given in
Table S2.6 in Appendix S2.
Rain forest expansion/contraction
During the 20-year time period 19491969, the north Kimberley
experienced expansion of rain forest cover. The extent of expan-
sion varied depending on the location: rain forests expanded by
52%, equivalent to 4.25 km ha
, on the Peninsula, and only by
9%, corresponding to 0.12 km ha
, on the Plateau (Figure 3a,b).
During the following 36-year period (19692005), the expansion
continued more slowly on the Peninsula, reaching an overall
expansion of 69%, whereas on the Plateau rain forest extent
remained stable. On the Peninsula, areas of contraction were
recorded during both time periods, although always compensated
by an overall higher proportion of expanded rain forest. At both
sites rain forests consistently preferred slopes, valleys and ridges
(Figure 4).
Patch characteristics
In 1949 a total of 1,668 patches, covering 3% of the land, were
mapped, and this area increased during the 20-year period to
1969, with a smaller increase between 1969 and 2005 (Table 1).
There were marked differences in trends between the Plateau and
the Peninsula in terms of patch density, individual patch size and
convolution. At all three observation times, patches on the Plateau
were smaller (w+=1.00) and more compact (w+=1.00) than
those on the Peninsula. Patch size and density increased on the
Peninsula, while on the Plateau there was no substantial change in
average patch size over the entire 56-year time frame (Figure 5a,
b), but a small increase in patch density was detected between
1949 and 1969. Rain forests on the Peninsula were bigger in
1969 and less convoluted in 2005 compared with 1949
(Figure 5b,c).
Correlates of rain forest expansion
Model selection showed that between 1949 and 1969, the local
variables that affected rain forest expansion were: convolution and
area of the original patch, distance from patch edge, and TPI
(Table 2). Areas on the Peninsula, and those close to the edge of
bigger and more convoluted patches, were more likely to convert
from savanna to rain forest. The same variables affected the expan-
sion of rain forests between 1969 and 2005. During this period, rain
forests were also more likely to establish on the northern side of
already existing patches and close to the coast (Table 2). On the
Peninsula there was substantial expansion on flat locations during
both periods, but this was not evident on the Plateau (Figure 4). The
best models for both periods explained 22% of the deviance.
No sign of cattle was found in any of the plots on the Peninsula. On
the Plateau, cattle presence was detected in 62% of the plots, with
no substantial differences in the intensity of cattle impact among
vegetation classes (w+ =0.51; Table S1.1 in Appendix S1). The
intensity of cattle grazing was negatively correlated with tree seed-
ling density in savannas (w+ =1.00), but not in rain forests
(w+ =0.63). Fire frequency was lower on plots located on the
Peninsula (w+ =1.00).
FIGURE 3 Rain forest extent over time on the Mitchell Plateau
and Bougainville Peninsula, shown as (a) rain forest area during
1949, 1969 and 2005, expressed as proportion of total land, and (b)
proportion of change in rain forest extent, relative to the baseline
year 1949
Floristics and vegetation structure
We identified 82 species belonging to the rain forest flora in plots
on the Peninsula, and 71 in those on the Plateau. Most records were
of species commonly found in Kimberley rain forests, with the
exception of Pouteria richardii (F. Muell.) Baehni, found on the Penin-
sula and never recorded before in Western Australia. Species com-
position was uniform within rain forest patches; of the species
sighted at least five times, only four rain forest species were found
exclusively on the patch edge (Bridelia tomentosa Blume, Ficus acu-
leata Miq., Flueggea virosa (Willd.) Voig, and Trema tomentosa (Roxb.)
Hara), and only two were limited to the patch core (Diospyros mar-
itima Blume and Meiogyne cylindrocarpa (Burck) Heusden). The
savanna flora had similar richness in the Peninsula and Plateau (29
and 31 species respectively). However, while all the savanna species
identified on the Plateau are common throughout the north Kimber-
ley, on the Peninsula we detected uncommon species recorded in
only a few sites in Western Australia, such as Eucalyptus oligantha
Schauer, and Xanthostemon psidioides (Lindl.) Peter G.Wilson &
J.T.Waterh. The latter is considered near threatened in Western
Australia. We also recorded two species thought not to grow in the
north Kimberley: Acacia drepanocarpa subsp. latifolia Pedley and
Vachellia ditricha (Pedley) Kodela (Atlas of Living Australia website at; Western Australian Herbarium, 1998). Some
of the savanna elements detected only on the Peninsula, such as
acacias (Acacia hemignosta F.Muell. A. stigmatophylla Benth,
FIGURE 4 Proportion of landscape occupied by rain forest in slopes, valleys, flat areas, and ridges on the Mitchell Plateau and Bougainville
Peninsula over time, from 1949 to 2005
TABLE 1 Total number of rain forest patches, rain forest extent, and proportion of land covered by rain forest for the years 1949, 1969
and 2005 on the Bougainville Peninsula (BP), Mitchell Plateau (MP) and the entire study area
Number of patches Rain forest extent (ha) Rain forest cover (ha km
BP MP Total BP MP Total BP MP Average
1949 759 776 1,668 2,504 968 3,786 8.4 1.3 3.5
1969 908 831 1,891 3,770 1,053 5,230 12.6 1.4 4.8
2005 989 869 2,053 4,085 1,054 5,713 13.7 1.4 5.2
A. drepanocarpa sub. latifolia Pedley), are known to be sensitive to
frequent fires (Russell-Smith, Yates, Brock, & Westcott, 2010).
Abrupt changes in vegetation characteristics were detected
across rain forest-savanna boundaries on the Plateau, while on the
Peninsula the differences were less apparent (Table S1.2 in
Appendix S1; Figure 6). The floristic composition and vegetation
structure of stable and expanded rain forests were very similar at
the two study locations, with the exception of higher tree and seed-
ling density on the Peninsula (w+=0.92 and w+=1.00 respectively;
Table S1.5 in Appendix S1). Stable rain forests also had more seed-
lings (w+=0.84) and a higher proportion of rain forest species
(w+=1.00) compared with recently expanded rain forests. For the
savannas, there were clear differences between the two location,
with signs of rain forest invasion on the Peninsula. Indeed, every
savanna quadrat on the Peninsula contained rain forest species in
the understorey, compared with only 27% on the Plateau. Conse-
quently, savannas on the Peninsula displayed greater species rich-
ness (w+=1.00), due to more rain forest species per plot
(w+=1.00). The Peninsulas savannas also had higher densities of
adult trees and seedlings (w+=0.88 and w+=1.00 respectively),
and greater grass cover (w+=0.87).
The invasion of rain forest species into the savanna on the
Peninsula resulted in contrasting profiles of tree canopy cover
across the rain forest-savanna boundaries at the two locations.
There was a gradual change in canopy cover across boundaries on
the Peninsula compared with abrupt boundaries on the Plateau
(Fig. S2.1 in Appendix S2). Furthermore, frequency distribution of
canopy cover on the Plateau transects displayed the bimodality
characteristic of two distinct vegetation states (Table S2.6; Fig. S2.2
in Appendix S2). By contrast, the unimodal canopy cover model, cor-
responding to blending of vegetation, was the best model for the
Our natural experiment in the north Kimberley, based on two geo-
graphically similar areas with contrasting disturbance regimes,
revealed significant differences in vegetation structure and in the
rate, magnitude, and environmental correlates of rain forest
FIGURE 5 Patch characteristics on the Bougainville Peninsula and Mitchell Plateau in the years 1949, 1969, and 2005, delineating (a) patch
density, expressed as number of rain forest patches normalized by the location area, (b) average patch size, and (c) average convolution of rain
forest patches. Error bars represent standard errors
TABLE 2 Explanatory variables included in the models assessing
the likelihood of a savanna cell, located within 60 m to a rain forest
patch, to convert in a rain forest cell on the Bougainville Peninsula
and Mitchell Plateau. The importance of each variable is expressed
as w+, the probability of the factor to be included in the best model.
The direction of the effect is indicated within brackets: +positive,
or negative for continuous variables; for categorical factors the
categories positively affecting the conversion to rain forest are
shown. Variables with w+values >0.73 (in bold) are considered
important predictors
Time period
Time period
Location (Bougainville Peninsula) 1.00 1.00
Convolution (+)1.00 1.00
Patch area (+)1.00 0.98
Distance from rain forest edge ()1.00 1.00
TPI (slopes, ridges, and valleys) 1.00 1.00
Distance from the coastline () 0.27 1.00
Expansion NorthSouth (North) 0.40 0.97
Expansion EastWest (West) 0.44 0.32
NorthSouth component
of aspect (North)
0.31 0.40
EastWest component
of aspect (West)
0.30 0.28
expansion in time. Specifically, the study design combined historical
aerial photography and field measurements to address three predic-
tions: (1) rain forest expansion has occurred in the north Kimberley
concurrently with the trend of increasing precipitation and/or atmo-
spheric CO
(2) this trend was locally influenced by the combined
effects of fire and megaherbivores and (3) areas subject to high dis-
turbance have different boundaries and patch shapes from less dis-
turbed areas. Below we discuss our findings with respect to the
current theories on rain forest-savanna dynamics.
The two study locations have similar climates, with mean annual
precipitation towards the lower limit of rain forests in Australia and
globally (Bowman, 2000). In the area, annual rainfall increased from
an estimated 1,080 to 1,280 mm during the period 1949 and 2005,
consistent with increasing precipitation and longer wet seasons
observed in north-western Australia in the past decades (Bureau of
Meteorology, 2016; Feng, Porporato, & Rodriguez-Iturbe, 2013). The
positive correlation between wetting trends and rain forest expan-
sion in the north Kimberley is consistent with findings of previous
studies in the Australian tropics, which associated increased rainfall
with rain forest expansion (Banfai & Bowman, 2006; Bowman et al.,
2010) or savanna woody thickening (Lehmann, Prior, & Bowman,
2009). However, we used space-for-time substitution and data for
current rain forest cover in monsoonal Australia (Ondei et al., 2017)
and estimated that this increase in rainfall corresponds to a 41% rel-
ative increase in the 95th percentile of rain forest cover (Fig. S3.3 in
Appendix S3). It is therefore improbable that wetting trends are
solely responsible for the 69% increase in rain forest cover observed
on the Plateau. Elevated CO
has also been associated with
enhanced tree growth and recruitment (Kgope, Bond, & Midgley,
2010) and resprouting of seedlings after defoliation, potentially con-
tributing to shift savannas towards a tree-dominated state (Bond &
Midgley, 2000; Buitenwerf, Bond, Stevens, & Trollope, 2012; Hoff-
mann, Bazzaz, Chatterton, Harrison, & Jackson, 2000). We also can-
not rule out relaxation of disturbance regimes contributing to the
rain forest expansion.
Our experiment was designed to compare locations with similar
climate and geology, and thus amounts of nutrients derived from the
parent material. Yet, remarkable differences in rain forest expansion
were detected between the Plateau and the Peninsula, suggesting
that rain forest distribution is not determined by resources alone.
Furthermore, our results showed that on the Peninsula, rain forest
expanded into infrequently burnt savannas across all landscape set-
tings, while on the Plateau rain forest expansion was constrained to
slopes, valleys and ridges. These differences highlight the importance
of disturbance history in modifying the expansion of rain forest. The
frequently burnt savannas on the Plateau had structurally abrupt and
FIGURE 6 Average plot values, recorded on the Mitchell Plateau and Bougainville Peninsula, of (a) proportion of rain forest plants amongst
the adult trees, (b) grass cover, (c) rock cover, (d) number of adult trees, (e) number of seedlings, and (f) species richness in the two study
locations for each vegetation class: (St RF) stable rain forests, (Exp 69) converted to rain forest in 1969, (Exp 05) converted to rain forest in
2005, (St SAV) stable savannas. Error bars represent standard errors
floristically distinct rain forest-savanna boundaries, consistent with
the view that fire maintains a sharp transition between these two
vegetation types (Dantas et al., 2013, 2016). Elevated fire activity
may also explain the very restricted patches and their limited convo-
lutions. By contrast, on the Peninsula the lower fire activity resulted
in large, convoluted patches that occurred across a range of land-
forms. Grass cover was higher in savannas on the Peninsula than the
Plateau, and a striking feature of the Peninsulas savannas was the
admixture of savanna and rain forest trees. Because of the low fire
frequency in the savannas on the Peninsula, rain forest trees, includ-
ing some species not found elsewhere in the Kimberley, were able
to grow even where the canopy was not yet closed sufficiently to
exclude grasses (Lawes, Murphy, Midgley, & Russell-Smith, 2011).
The rarity of anthropogenic ignitions on the Peninsula and its fire-
protected position have possibly caused this anomaly. Here, the
main limitation to rain forest tree growth appears to be competition
with savanna trees and grasses for resources (Bond, 2008). By con-
trast, on the Plateau, frequent disturbance also imposes a constraint
on rain forest tree growth.
The invasion of cattle on the Plateau during the time period
19692005 is likely to have accentuated the differences in rain for-
est expansion between the Plateau and the Peninsula, through direct
and indirect effects. Cattle may have limited the expansion of
patches on the Plateau, because trampling and browsing of juveniles
likely contributed to lower seedling density. Cattle may also have
increased grass cover by opening up understories on rain forest
boundaries, thereby increasing fire activity (Camargo-Sanabria et al.,
2015; Fleury et al., 2015; Mckenzie & Belbin, 1991).
Because our natural experiment was based on only two sites, we
cannot rule out the possibility that factors other than those we
tested contributed to differences in rain forest structure, distribution,
and expansion. Nonetheless, by removing climatic and geological dif-
ferences from our study design, we showed that fire activity proba-
bly has a primary role in driving vegetation dynamics (Hoffmann
et al., 2012; Lawes et al., 2011; Murphy & Bowman, 2012), with cat-
tle herbivory perhaps playing a subsidiary role (Figure 7). On fertile
substrates and when freed from disturbance, rain forests can occupy
a larger range of landscapes than is typically observed. We found
that the expansion of rain forests into unburnt savannas resulted in
ecotonal vegetation that blends the floristic and structural elements
of both vegetation types. This highlights the importance of fire
regimes in shaping vegetation structure and floristic composition in
regions where savanna and rain forest co-exist (Dantas et al., 2013).
It is possible that, prior to Aboriginal colonisation and the marsupial
megafaunal extinctions, there would have been a less pronounced
dichotomy between savannas and rain forests, and long-lasting tran-
sitional states such as those that now occur on the Peninsula may
have been present. Analysis of pollen, charcoal and Sporormiella
records in north-east Australia have been interpreted as showing
that the extinction of marsupial megafauna following human coloni-
sation led to a transition from relatively open and mixed rain forest-
sclerophyll forest to pure sclerophyll vegetation and an increase in
fire activity (Rule et al., 2012). Aboriginal fire management possibly
sharpened boundaries between savanna and rain forests, maintaining
fire sensitive vegetation in a matrix of flammable savanna
(Trauernicht, Brook, Murphy, Williamson, & Bowman, 2015).
FIGURE 7 Feedbacks regulating the presence of rain forests or savannas. The existing vegetation type, rain forest or savanna, is the results
of a complex network of interactions, involving bottom-up controls (resource) and top-down controls (consumers). Vegetation acts as a
consumer of resources such as water and nutrients, and as a resource for the consumers of biomass (megaherbivores and fire). Top-down and
bottom-up controls influence each other via direct effect or by facilitating the establishment of one vegetation type or the other. The
approximate strength of each relationship is indicated by the width of the arrows. (Adapted from Murphy & Bowman, 2012)
Across northern Australia, contemporary disturbance regimes,
which include frequent landscape burning and widespread cattle
grazing, are thought to be contributing to the decline of many small
to medium sized mammals due to loss of shelter and food resources
(Legge, Kennedy, Lloyd, Murphy, & Fisher, 2011; Woinarski,
Burbidge, & Harrison, 2015). In this context, the cattle-free and
rarely burnt Bougainville may be important for biodiversity, by offer-
ing more long-unburnt habitats for large numbers of threatened
small to medium sized mammals and fire-sensitive floristic elements
rarely found elsewhere in northern Australia (Radford, Gibson, Corey,
Carnes, & Fairman, 2015; Woinarski, Risler, & Kean, 2004).
We thank the Uunguu Rangers, Wunambal Gaambera Traditional
Owners, Carly Ward and Phil Docherty for their support in the field
work components of this study, and Ian Cowie and Nick Cuff at North-
ern Territory Herbarium for their help with species identification.
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
All authors conceived the idea; S.O. performed remote sensing
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Stefania Ondei is interested in vegetation ecology and conservation
of threatened communities/species. This study forms part of her
doctoral dissertation in the Environmental Change Biology Labora-
tory at the University of Tasmania led by Professor David Bowman.
A key focus of the group is understanding the impacts of global
environmental change on Australian landscapes and their fire
Additional Supporting Information may be found online in the sup-
porting information tab for this article.
How to cite this article: Ondei S, Prior LD, Vigilante T,
Bowman DMJS. Fire and cattle disturbance affects vegetation
structure and rain forest expansion into savanna in the
Australian monsoon tropics. J Biogeogr. 2017;00:112.
... Since 2008, fire management has been restored by Aboriginal rangers, resulting in a change from intense fires occurring in the late dry season (LDS) to milder, early dry season fires (Vigilante et al. 2017). Despite the widespread presence of fire in the north Kimberley, in a few coastal locations, such as offshore islands and the Bougainville Peninsula, fire is infrequent, with consequent higher rainforest extent compared with the rest of the Australian monsoon tropics (Ondei et al. 2017a). ...
... valleys and slopes; Ondei et al. 2017b). In both areas rainforests have a closed canopy and provide more abundant tree species with fleshy fruits (calculated as average basal area from data collected by Ondei et al. 2017a), which is important for mammalian and avian frugivore species (Table 1). The Bougainville Peninsula lies entirely on Precambrian basalts but the Mitchell Plateau spans across basalt and sandstone. ...
... We recorded the species name of each tree and shrub, as well as grass cover and rock cover, quantified on a scale from one to five. More information on the transect design can be found in Ondei et al. (2017a). Vertebrate species were sampled using 40 unbaited camera traps (RECONYX HyperFire PC800 Professional, Professional Trapping Supplies (PTS), Gold Coast, Qld, Australia) from July-August 2014 to May-June 2015. ...
ContextPopulations of native mammals are declining at an alarming rate in many parts of tropical northern Australia. Fire regimes are considered a contributing factor, but this hypothesis is difficult to test because of the ubiquity of fire. AimsThis preliminary study investigated relative abundance and richness of small mammals on a gradient of fire regimes in the Uunguu Indigenous Protected Area (north Kimberley, Australia). Methods Species were sampled using 40 unbaited camera traps, positioned for a year on 20 transects crossing the rainforest–savanna boundary at locations with comparable environment and geology but varying fire history. The relative importance of the factors ‘fire frequency’, ‘late dry season fire frequency’, ‘time since burnt’ and ‘vegetation type’ as predictors of the number of small mammal species and detections was tested using Spatial Generalised Linear Mixed Models to account for spatial autocorrelation. Key resultsNine species of small mammals were observed. Mammals were more abundant and diverse in locations with low overall fire frequency, which was a better predictor than late dry season fire frequency or time since burnt. The model including fire frequency and vegetation explained the highest proportion of total variation in mammal diversity (R2=42.0%), with most of this variation explained by fire frequency alone (R2=40.5%). The best model for number of detections (R2=20.9%) included both factors. Conclusions In the north Kimberley, small mammals are likely to be more abundant and diverse in areas with low fire frequency. ImplicationsThis natural experiment supports the theory that frequent fires are contributing to the decline of small mammals observed across northern Australia.
... A strength of this study is the time depth in the cover data, as they span the period 1950 to 2016, with a total of 10 measurement occasions. Other comparable studies in northern Australia have used only two to four measurement occasions (Sharp & Bowman 2004;Banfai & Bowman 2006;Lehmann et al. 2009;Ondei et al. 2017). Although we found year-to-year fluctuations, we were unable to discern any overall temporal trend in the data. ...
... Our finding of long-term stability in tree cover is unlike results from many other studies in northern Australia, which had larger geographic coverage but more limited temporal replication than this study. These studies have shown both expansion of closedcanopy rainforest into savanna (Banfai & Bowman, 2005Tng et al. 2011;Ondei et al. 2017) and thickening of the savanna itself (Fensham & Fairfax 2003;Vigilante & Bowman 2004;Crowley et al. 2009;Lehmann et al. 2009;Murphy et al. 2014). Lehmann et al. (2009) found an overall 4.9% increase in tree cover in Kakadu's savannas between 1964 and 2004, but there was high spatio-temporal variability. ...
Previous analyses of historical aerial photography and satellite imagery have shown thickening of woody cover in Australian tropical savannas, despite increasing fire frequency. The thickening has been attributed to increasing precipitation and atmospheric CO2 enrichment. These analyses involved labour‐intensive, manual classification of vegetation, and hence were limited in the extent of the areas and the number of measurement times used. Object‐based, semi‐automated classification of historical sequences of aerial photography and satellite imagery has enabled the spatio‐temporal analysis of woody cover over entire landscapes, thus facilitating measurement, monitoring and attribution of drivers of change. Using this approach, we investigated woody cover change in 4000 ha of intact mesic savanna in the Ranger uranium lease and surrounding Kakadu National Park, using imagery acquired on 10 occasions between 1950 and 2016. Unlike previous studies, we detected no overall trend in woody cover through time. Some variation in cover was related to rainfall in the previous 12 months, and there were weak effects of fire in the year of image acquisition and the antecedent 4 years. Our local‐scale study showed a mesic eucalypt savanna in northern Australia has been resilient to short‐term variation in rainfall and fire activity; however, changes in canopy cover could have occurred in other settings. When applying this semi‐automated approach to similar studies of savanna dynamics, we recommend maximising the time depth and number of measurement years, standardising the time of year for image acquisition and using many plots of 1 ha in area, rather than fewer, larger plots.
... However, the absence of an abundance gradient in the interior-edge direction where individuals occur and are abundant, similar to the upper portion as a whole, may be associated with the broad cattle occupation in the fragment. Cattle action occurs in order to modify environmental conditions and hinders the success of less resistant species (Trimble and Mendel, 1995;Raffaele et al., 2011;Benítez-Malvido, 2014;Ondei et al., 2017). Thus, occurrence would be limited by the natural variation in the fragment, while the pattern of abundance would be associated with the influence of the anthropic context. ...
... Seed: seedling; Reg: regenerating; Juv: juvenile; Pre-est: preestablished; and Est: established. with the anthropic matrix, such as cattle, frequent fire, and the influence of herbicides used on nearby agricultural crops (Murcia, 1995;Fahrig, 2003;Ondei et al., 2017;Pardini et al., 2018). The presence of these disturbances makes conditions and resource availability more variable over time and makes it difficult to develop stable behavior, which increases mortality and decreases recruitment and the survival chances of individuals (Collinge, 2009;Brando et al., 2014;Hadadd et al., 2015;Pardini et al., 2018). ...
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We tested the hypothesis that plant populations in natural fragments have distinct ecological behavior in relation to anthropic fragments. We selected the species Myrcia splendens (SW.) DC. in 2 forest fragments located in southeastern Brazil that present different origins and landscape contexts. The natural fragment originates from landscape relief variations and is inserted in a native grassland matrix, while the anthropic fragment originates from fragmentation due to area conversion and is inserted in an agricultural matrix. We established transects covering an area from one border to the other in each fragment, and we established subunits of 400 m² within them. Within each subunit we measured all individuals of M. splendens at all establishment stages (seedlings to established trees). We monitored population behavior in the two fragments for 4 years, evaluating their spatial structure, temporal behavior, and age structure. The two populations present distinct ecological behaviors associated with their different origins and landscape contexts; the natural fragment is exposed to disturbances it has adapted to throughout the evolutionary process, whereas the anthropic fragment is subject to new evolutionary disturbances, such as effect edge, cattle, and recurrent fire.
... This may also seem counterintuitive, as grazing should release trees from competition from grasses and reduce fire intensity (Archer 1995;Ash and Corfield 1998;Liedloff et al. 2001;Beringer et al. 2007;Riginos 2009;Pillay and Ward 2021). In rainforest, this difference may be explained by cattle browsing on seedlings and saplings reducing the recruitment of trees to the canopy (Ondei et al. 2017). In eucalypt woodland, the grazing land effect may result from tree health being adversely affected by cattle stripping bark (Guerreiro et al. 2015). ...
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Carbon accounting in tropical savannas relies on a good understanding of the effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and land management on foliage projective cover (FPC) and vegetation structure. We used generalised additive modelling to track changes in Autumn Persistent Green (APG, a satellite-image-derived measure of FPC) in six vegetation types on Cape York Peninsula, Australia, over an 18-year period, and examined the influence of fire and grazing land tenure. We then used field monitoring and variography (analysis of spatial autocorrelation) in a smaller study area to determine whether changes in APG reflected vegetation structural change. APG increased through the 18-year study period and was significantly influenced by vegetation type, recent fire history and grazing land tenure. Residual year-on-year increases suggest CO2 fertilisation was the main driver of APG increase. APG was reduced by fires in the previous year, with early dry season fires having greater impact than late dry season fires, particularly in grassland and rainforest. This is consistent with leaves being most fire sensitive early in the year, when they are actively growing, than in the late dry season, when they are dormant. As seedlings and suckers would be particularly fire-sensitive, early fires may therefore be more effective than late fires at preventing woody encroachment. We demonstrated that variography provides a good indication of whether APG increases are caused by increases in FPC alone, or by an increase in tree density. We found support for increased woody plant density in grasslands, and that this increase was most pronounced on grazing lands. Conversely, we found no support for stem density increases in the dominant eucalypt woodland, despite APG increases being highest in this vegetation type. Hence, increases in FPC cannot always be equated to increases in woody biomass, and may occur in their absence. This conclusion has serious implications for global carbon accounting.
... Ensuring fire management is compatible with biodiversity conservation is particularly important across the vast tropical savannas of northern Australia, where the loss of Aboriginal fire management is widely considered to be a key factor contributing to widespread biodiversity decline (Bowman et al., 2004). The increased frequency of large, high-intensity fires in these landscapes has been strongly implicated in the decline of numerous species and ecological communities, including stands of northern cypress pine (Callitris intratropica) (Bowman and Panton, 1993), sandstone heathlands (Russell-Smith et al., 2002), rainforests (Ondei et al., 2017), granivorous birds (Franklin, 1999), and small mammals Woinarski et al., 2011). To mitigate these declines, contemporary fire management aims to apply smaller, low-intensity fires, under relatively mild fire weather conditions. ...
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Maximising the spatiotemporal variability of prescribed fire (i.e. pyrodiversity) is often thought to benefit biodiversity. However, given mixed empirical support, the generality of the pyrodiversity hypothesis remains questionable. Here, we use a simulation experiment to explore the effects of spatiotemporal fire patterns on the population trajectories of four mammal species in a northern Australian savanna: northern brown bandicoot (Isoodon macrourus), northern brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula arnhemensis), grassland melomys (Melomys burtoni), and northern quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus). Underpinned by data from a landscape-scale fire experiment, we simulated mammal population trajectories under three scenarios of fire size (ambient, small/dispersed fires, large/clumped fires) and three levels of dispersal ability (low, moderate, high) over a 21-year period across the Kapalga area of Kakadu National Park. The simulated population size of all four species declined markedly, regardless of fire spatial pattern and dispersal ability. However, the predicted final population size (i.e. number of individuals in the final timestep of the simulation) for the northern brown bandicoot, northern brushtail possum and grassland melomys were significantly influenced by fire size, with declines most severe under the small/dispersed fire scenario. Our results suggest that maximising the dispersion of small fires at the expense of disturbance refugia (such as less-frequently burnt areas) may exacerbate the severity of mammal decline. This highlights the importance of considering trade-offs between spatial (i.e. fire dispersion) and temporal (i.e. fire frequency) aspects of pyrodiversity, and the potential risks when applying fire management for biodiversity conservation without a firm understanding of the requirements of the target species.
... Woody encroachment is extensive and is occurring in grassy ecosystems across the world: the Eurasian steppes (1% increase per decade), North America (10-20% increase per decade), South America (8% increase per decade), Africa (2.4% increase per decade), and Australia (1% increase per decade) (115,182,183). Tropical forest expansion into mesic savannas is occurring in Africa, South America, Australia, and Southeast Asia (183)(184)(185). Tree and shrub encroachment into patches of temperate montane grassland, balds, and meadows is common (10,176). ...
As the Anthropocene advances, there are few parts of Earth that have not been impacted by human influence. Humans have had a long-sustained interaction with grassy ecosystems, but they are becoming severely impacted by direct and indirect impacts as the Anthropocene advances. Grassy ecosystems are easy to clear and cultivate, poorly protected, and poorly defined due to legacies of colonial narratives that can describe them as deforested, wastelands, or derived. Climate change, land conversion, and the erosion of the processes that have shaped grassy ecosystems for millennia have had cascading and cumulative impacts on grassy ecosystem extent and integrity. We examine how these changes are impacting grassy ecosystems, more specifically, those that fall into ecosystem uncertain space—a climate envelope where vegetation is not at equilibrium with climate and either grassy or forest ecosystems can occur. It is within this space that climate, CO 2 , and disturbances (fire, herbivores) interact to determine the presence of grassy ecosystems. Changes to any of these components reduce the integrity of grassy ecosystems. The loss of these ancient biodiverse ecosystems means loss of an array of ecosystem services fundamental to the lives of more than 1 billion people alongside Earth system impacts of altered albedo, carbon, and hydrological cycles. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Volume 47 is October 2022. Please see for revised estimates.
... Spatially explicit modelling work suggests that fires at the savanna-forest boundary can influence the biogeographic distribution of biomes (Goel, Guttal, et al., 2020;Goel, Van Vleck, et al., 2020;Staver et al., 2011b;van de Leemput et al., 2015;Wuyts et al., 2019). Meanwhile, local observations confirm that boundaries can be dynamic through time (Beckett & Bond, 2019;Brook & Bowman, 2006;Ibanez et al., 2013;Silva et al., 2008), from Africa (Aleman & Staver, 2018;Baccini et al., 2017), to South America (Marimon et al., 2014), to Australia (Ondei et al., 2017;Stevens et al., 2017;Rosan et al., 2019). ...
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Fires in savannas limit tree cover, thereby promoting flammable grass accumulation and fuelling further frequent fires. Meanwhile, forests and thickets form dense canopies that reduce C4 grass fuel loads and creating a humid microclimate, thereby excluding fires under typical climatic conditions. However, extreme fires occasionally burn into these closed‐canopy systems. Although these rare fires cause substantial tree mortality and can make repeat fires more likely, the long‐term consequences of an extreme fire for closed‐canopy vegetation structure and potential to convert to savanna (hereafter ‘savannization’) remain largely unknown. Here, we analysed whether an extreme fire could, alone, alter species composition, vegetation structure and fire regimes of closed‐canopy ecosystems in an intact savanna–forest–thicket mosaic, or whether successive fires after an initial extreme fire were necessary to trigger a biome transition from forest to savanna. We found that forests that only burned once recovered, whereas those that burned again following an initial extreme fire transitioned from closed‐canopy forests towards open, grassy savannas. While thickets had less tree mortality in fires than forests, repeat fires nonetheless precipitated a transition towards savannas. Colonization of the savanna tree community lagged behind the grass community, but also began to transition. Synthesis . Our results suggest that rare extreme fires, followed by repeated burning can indeed result in savannization in places where savanna and forest represent alternative stable states.
... . For example, forest expansion in mountainous populated areas has been recently detected in South America(Nanni et al. 2019) and East Asia(Fang et al. 2014). Grazing decline and fire suppression favored forest expansion and forest infilling in California, USA(Lydersen and Collins 2018) and recently rain forest expansion into savanna has been detected in Australia(Ondei et al. 2017). Natural forest expansion is particularly evident and rapid in several mountain ranges of the World such as in the Mediterranean Basin (e.g.Roura-Pascual et al. 2005;Niedrist et al. 2009;Weisberg et al. 2013) where agrosilvo-pastoral traditional practices declined abruptly due to rural depopulation(Lasanta et al. 2017).However, there have been few studies comparing post-abandonment forest expansion patterns among different regions or mountain ranges (e.g.Tasser et al. 2007;Fontana et al. 2014).By comparing the Italian Alps and the Apennines we found that environmental influences on forest expansion processes were similar between the two regions. ...
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ContextLand use legacies of human activities and recent post-abandonment forest expansion have extensively modified numerous forest landscapes throughout the European mountain ranges. Drivers of forest expansion and the effects of changes on ecosystem services are currently debated.Objectives(i) To compare landscape transition patterns of the Alps and the Apennines (Italy), (ii) to quantify the dominant landscape transitions, and (iii) to measure the influence of climatic, topographic and anthropogenic driving factors.Methods Land cover changes and landscape pattern modifications were investigated at the regional (over 28 years, Alps and Apennines, Corine Land Cover dataset) and landscape scale (over 58 years, 8 Alpine and 8 Apennine sites, aerial images). The main driving factors of post-abandonment forest landscape dynamics were assessed with a statistical modeling approach.ResultsForest expansion was the dominant landscape transition at both Italian mountain ranges, with an annual overall rate of 0.6%. Forest expansion was more extensive at lower elevations in the Apennines where climate is less limiting and extensive abandoned croplands and pastures were available throughout the study period. Distance from pre-existing forest edges in the Alps and elevation in the Apennines emerged as the most important predictors.Conclusions Forest expansion is most rapid where areas of recent agricultural abandonment coincide with favorable climatic conditions. Thus the prediction of forest landscape dynamics, in these mountain forests with a long history of cultural use, requires knowledge of how the magnitude and timing of land use changes intersect spatially and temporally with suitable conditions for tree establishment and growth.
... The reasons for the recent thickening are debated but include land use change, a trend to increasing rainfall in northern Australia and/or a CO 2 fertilization effect (eg Murphy and Bowman, 2012;Murphy et al., 2014;Scheiter et al., 2015;Ondei et al., 2017). For the purposes of this study we simply note that all three isotope proxies yield a consistent direction of change across multiple, geographically separated sites, suggesting that the proxies themselves do faithfully encode an interpretable environmental signal that is, under favourable conditions, Fig. 8. ...
This study reports palynological and geochemical results for modern and ancient sediments from 19 lakes on a rainfall gradient (784e1880 mm), across a range of savannas in Northern Australia. All proxies varied significantly across the range of sites examined, providing a robust envelope of values that can reliably be employed to identify a savanna signature in the sedimentary record. While the results indicate it is possible to identify a savanna, we found only three statistically significant relationships between any proxy measured in surface sediments and the major climate driver of savanna vegetation composition (rainfall amount). This is because edaphic factors play a dominant role in determining vegetation composition and also potentially because of the impact of land use change. Measures of fire determined by charcoal counting were positively correlated with geochemical measures of pyrogenic carbon abundance, suggesting both record a similar signal. While measures of fire incidence were not correlated with rainfall, there was a significant positive correlation between charcoal abundance and number of fires early in the dry season, suggesting that charcoal abundance is controlled more by the number/timing of fires than climate. There was also a significant correlation between the d 13 C-value of pyrogenic carbon and tree:grass ratio derived from palynological indicators, indicating that the d 13 C-value of PyC is a reliable indicator of savanna 'woodiness'. Comparison of the carbon isotope composition of total organic carbon, PyC and n-alkanes between modern and Holocene sediments suggest that the savannas of the region have remained either similar in 'woodiness' or have thickened over the last millennia.
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We evaluated the structural and floristic characteristics of a Brazilian savanna fragment occupied by cerradão (CD) and cerrado sensu stricto (CS) in response to the influence of rainfall and long-term fire suppression. We carried out floristic, phytosociological and remote sensing studies in a cerrado fragment located in Corumbataí (SP, Brazil) after 43 years of complete fire suppression. We surveyed 43 plots of 200 m2 each (17 plots in CS and 26 plots in CD) and all individuals ≥ 0.32 cm diameter measured at 30 cm from the ground were included in the sample. We calculated phytosociological parameters for each species and classified them in three ecological groups, namely savanna, generalist and forest species. The remote sensing analysis used aerial photographs and satellite images from 1962 to 2019 (i.e. 59 years). The structural study of community revealed high predominance of forest and generalist species when compared to savanna species. Non-linear correlation between CD expansion rates and total rainfall within the study period indicated a positive influence of the rainfall (R2 = 0.42). Thus, our analysis indicated a tendency of a continuous and fast expansion of CD over areas of CS in the long-term absence of fire combined with periods of heavy rain.
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The small rainforest fragments found in savanna landscapes are powerful, yet often overlooked, model systems to understand the controls of these contrasting ecosystems. We analyzed the relative effect of climatic variables on rainforest density at a subcontinental level, and employed high-resolution, regional-level analyses to assess the importance of landscape settings and fire activity in determining rainforest density in a frequently burnt Australian savanna landscape. Estimates of rainforest density (ha/km2) across the Northern Territory and Western Australia, derived from preexisting maps, were used to calculate the correlations between rainforest density and climatic variables. A detailed map of the northern Kimberley (Western Australia) rainforests was generated and analyzed to determine the importance of geology and topography in controlling rainforests, and to contrast rainforest density on frequently burnt mainland and nearby islands. In the northwestern Australian, tropics rainforest density was positively correlated with rainfall and moisture index, and negatively correlated with potential evapotranspiration. At a regional scale, rainforests showed preference for complex topographic positions and more fertile geology. Compared with mainland areas, islands had significantly lower fire activity, with no differences between terrain types. They also displayed substantially higher rainforest density, even on level terrain where geomorphological processes do not concentrate nutrients or water. Our multi-scale approach corroborates previous studies that suggest moist climate, infrequent fires, and geology are important stabilizing factors that allow rainforest fragments to persist in savanna landscapes. These factors need to be incorporated in models to predict the future extent of savannas and rainforests under climate change.
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Contributing to recent discussions regarding the evidence for and against forest and savanna representing alternative steady states (ASS) across much of the tropical lands, we here address several issues raised by Staal and Flores (2015) in a recent commentary published in this journal (Biogeosciences, 12, 5563–5566, 2015). Our analysis shows that – in what could alternatively be titled "A Tale of Five Fallacies" – substantial errors in reasoning exhibited by both Staal and Flores (2015) and the ASS community in general in terms of arguments invoked as providing support for ASS as a key factor determining tropical vegetation distributions. Specifically we: (1) demonstrate that bimodal distributions of canopy cover need not necessarily be associated with ASS ("fallacy of confirmation bias"); (2) show that models suggesting the mathematical feasibility of ASS can never be taken as any sort of proof as to their actual existence ("fallacy of misplaced concreteness"); (3) conclude that studies failing to make climate-independent associations between soil properties and forest/savanna distributions (and thereby concluding that ASS must be present) have inevitably failed to measure the right things. Or in many cases, not even made the required measurements ("fallacy of suppressed evidence"). Moreover, we also find: (4) assertions that ASS associated concepts such as detrimental effects of fire on soil chemical properties and positive effects of forest tree species on soil fertility are totally without foundation ("fallacy of wishful thinking") and (5) a strong tendency amongst ASS advocates to take results from temperate ecosystems and incorrectly assume that this provides support for the existence of ASS in the tropical forest and savanna lands ("fallacy of hasty generalisation"). We conclude all arguments presented to date in support of the widespread existence of ASS in the tropical regions to be flawed. As an alternative, we suggest that forest-savanna transitions may be better understood as reflecting the effects of soil physical and chemical properties on tropical vegetation structure and function with fire-effected feedbacks simply serving to reinforce these patterns through a "sharpening switch" mechanism.
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Positive feedbacks influenced by direct and indirect interactions between fire, vegetation, and microclimate can allow pyrophilic and pyrophobic ecosystems to co-occur in the same landscape, resulting in the juxtaposition of flammable and non-flammable vegetation. To quantify the drivers of these feedbacks, we combined measurements of vegetation, fuels, and microclimate with observations of fire spread along ecotonal gradients. We established 113 permanent transects (consisting of 532 plots), each traversing an ecotone between savanna and wetland in the Sandhills of North Carolina, USA. In each plot, we recorded cover of ten plant functional types. We collected surface fuels at a subset of our transects. We continuously monitored microclimate (nine meteorological variables) across 21 representative ecotones. Following prescribed fire, we measured fire spread along each transect. Vegetation structure and microclimate significantly predicted fire spread along the savanna-wetland ecotone. Fire spread was most influenced by vegetation structure, specifically C-4 grass cover, which accounted for 67 % of the variance explained by our model. We have identified the components of the fire, vegetation, and microclimate feedback that control where fires stop under current conditions, but their control should not be considered absolute. For example, when ignited in savanna, prescribed burns continued through wetland vegetation 43 % of the time. The feedback operating within these systems may be relatively weak as compared to other savanna systems. Environmental changes may alter fire spread extent, and with it ecosystem boundaries, or even ecosystem states.
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In tropical areas where climatic conditions support both rainforests and savannas, fire is considered one of the main factors determining their distribution, particularly in environments where growth rates are limited by water availability. The observed expansion of some rainforests into savannas suggests that rainforest saplings could have traits that enable them to survive in the savanna environment, including recovering from infrequent fires. We applied the Clarke (New Phytol 197:19–35, 2013) buds-protection-resources framework to the rainforest–savanna system of the North Kimberley (Western Australia), to compare the resprouting response of five savanna species saplings burnt by an ambient early dry season fire with seven rainforest species saplings burnt using an experimental treatment that mimicked a savanna fire. Most plants survived the fire, although plant mortality was higher for rainforest (19 %) than savanna (2 %) individuals, as was stem mortality (37 vs. 12 %). All rainforest and savanna species expressed aerial resprouting; two of the savanna species and two of the rainforest species did not express basal resprouting. After 1 year, most savanna individuals had more and longer shoots than the rainforest saplings and had regained their original height, while rainforest plants were on average 43 % shorter than their pre-fire height. These results suggest that, although rainforest species are less able to escape the ‘fire trap’ than savanna species, they are able to recover from a low-intensity fire.
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Through interpretations of remote-sensing data and/or theoretical propositions, the idea that forest and savanna represent "alternative stable states" is gaining increasing acceptance. Filling an observational gap, we present detailed stratified floristic and structural analyses for forest and savanna stands located mostly within zones of transition (where both vegetation types occur in close proximity) in Africa, South America and Australia. Woody plant leaf area index variation was related to tree canopy cover in a similar way for both savanna and forest with substantial overlap between the two vegetation types. As total woody plant canopy cover increased, so did the relative contribution of middle and lower strata of woody vegetation. Herbaceous layer cover declined as woody cover increased. This pattern of understorey grasses and herbs progressively replaced by shrubs as the canopy closes over was found for both savanna and forests and on all continents. Thus, once subordinate woody canopy layers are taken into account, a less marked transition in woody plant cover across the savanna–forest-species discontinuum is observed compared to that inferred when trees of a basal diameter > 0.1 m are considered in isolation. This is especially the case for shrub-dominated savannas and in taller savannas approaching canopy closure. An increased contribution of forest species to the total subordinate cover is also observed as savanna stand canopy closure occurs. Despite similarities in canopy-cover characteristics, woody vegetation in Africa and Australia attained greater heights and stored a greater amount of above-ground biomass than in South America. Up to three times as much above-ground biomass is stored in forests compared to savannas under equivalent climatic conditions. Savanna–forest transition zones were also found to typically occur at higher precipitation regimes for South America than for Africa. Nevertheless, consistent across all three continents coexistence was found to be confined to a well-defined edaphic–climate envelope with soil and climate the key determinants of the relative location of forest and savanna stands. Moreover, when considered in conjunction with the appropriate water availability metrics, it emerges that soil exchangeable cations exert considerable control on woody canopy-cover extent as measured in our pan-continental (forest + savanna) data set. Taken together these observations do not lend support to the notion of alternate stable states mediated through fire feedbacks as the prime force shaping the distribution of the two dominant vegetation types of the tropical lands.
Why do Australian rainforests occur as islands within the vast tracts of Eucalyptus? Why is fire a critical ecological factor in every Australian landscape? What were the consequences of the ice-age colonists use of fire? In this original and challenging book, David Bowman critically examines hypotheses that have been advanced to answer these questions. He demonstrates that fire is the most critical factor in controlling the distribution of rainforest throughout Australia. Furthermore, while Aboriginal people used fire to skilfully manage and preserve habitats, he concludes that they did not significantly influence the evolution of Australia's unique flora and fauna. This book is a comprehensive overview of the diverse literature that attempts to solve the puzzle of the archipelago of rainforest habitats in Australia. It is essential reading for all ecologists, foresters, conservation biologists, and others interested in the biogeography and ecology of Australian rainforests.
A guide to using S environments to perform statistical analyses providing both an introduction to the use of S and a course in modern statistical methods. The emphasis is on presenting practical problems and full analyses of real data sets.
Understanding the mechanisms controlling the distribution of biomes remains a challenge. Although tropical biome distribution has traditionally been explained by climate and soil, contrasting vegetation types often occur as mosaics with sharp boundaries under very similar environmental conditions. While evidence suggests that these biomes are alternative states, empirical broad-scale support to this hypothesis is still lacking. Using community-level field data and a novel resource-niche overlap approach, we show that, for a wide range of environmental conditions, fire feedbacks maintain savannas and forests as alternative biome states in both the Neotropics and the Afrotropics. In addition, wooded grasslands and savannas occurred as alternative grassy states in the Afrotropics, depending on the relative importance of fire and herbivory feedbacks. These results are consistent with landscape scale evidence and suggest that disturbance is a general factor driving and maintaining alternative biome states and vegetation mosaics in the tropics.