Fire regimes, climates, and vegetation distributions are predicted to change, and in some cases are already changing. Therefore, understanding the links and feedbacks between these elements is key for managing and conserving biodiversity. This thesis uses simulation modelling to build on our knowledge of some of these challenging interactions. I demonstrate the influence climate and soil has on predictions of fuel and use this data to inform predictions of future fire regimes and associated risks to biodiversity. The results provide insights into the interacting roles of climate and fuel in predicting fire regimes and I examine some of the potential risks to biodiversity.
Congratulations to Sarah McColl-Gausden who delivered her PhD completion seminar last Friday. Sarah’s thesis is titled ‘Predicting future wildfire regimes and associated impacts under changing climates in temperate Australia’, and her work is already being used by government in wildfire management.
Image description – Photo of Sarah standing in a lecture theatre, wearing a long brown floral dress. Behind her is a project screen, showing a slide three photos of forests. Underneath the photo is a title which reads ‘Impacts of future fire changing climates and the implications for biodiversity’.
New paper! "Untangling the influences of fire, habitat and introduced predators on the endangered heath mouse"
Our recent paper, first published online in Animal Conservation, "Untangling the influences of fire, habitat and introduced predators on the endangered heath mouse", arose from Rachel Nalliah's Master’s thesis and involved camera trap surveys of heath mice and foxes in treeless heath in south-west Victoria on Gunditjmara country.
In flammable ecosystems, there is great potential to use fire for animal conservation, however most fire-based conservation strategies do not explicitly consider interacting factors. In this study, we sought to understand the interrelationships between the endangered heath mouse/dayang (Pseudomys shortridgei), fire, resource availability and the introduced fox (Vulpes vulpes). We used structural equation modelling to identify pathways between variables, and mediation analysis to detect indirect effects. We did not detect a direct relationship between heath mice and post-fire age class, but they were indirectly associated with age class via its influence on both shrub cover and fox relative abundance.
Our findings suggest that heath mice will benefit from a fire regime promoting dense shrub regeneration in combination with predator control. Understanding the indirect effects of fire on animals may help to identify complementary management practices that can be applied concurrently to benefit animal conservation.
Read the full paper here -
Nalliah, R., Sitters, H., Smith, A. & Di Stefano, J. (2021). Untangling the influences of fire, habitat and introduced predators on the endangered heath mouse. Animal Conservation.
A big congratulations to our students Gemma Higgins and Erin Thomas who recently submitted their Masters’ theses!
Erin has completed a Masters of Science, and her thesis is titled “The influence of vegetation structure and landscape context on the 24-hour activity of four sympatric macropod species”. Gemma's thesis, titled “The effects of fire regimes and vegetation structure on birds in contrasting heathland ecosystems” was completed as part of her Masters of Environment.
Both Erin and Gemma have made valued contributions to the Fire Ecology and Biodiversity Group, and we wish them the very best for the future!
Gemma (left) and Erin (right) doing fieldwork in South-West Victoria
In our new paper, published online first in Landscape Ecology, we address two questions: 1) do mammals prefer lots of long-unburnt vegetation in the landscape or a mix of long-unburnt and recently-burnt vegetation? 2) are these preferences influenced by the matrix of other land uses, including the presence of nearby paddocks or plantations? This work arose from Lauren Delaney's Honours thesis and involved camera-trap surveys of mammals in the heathy woodland of southwest Victoria on Gunditjmara country. We studied eight species and found that four of them (eastern and western grey kangaroo, red-necked wallaby and yellow-footed antechinus) preferred a mix of fire ages within landscapes covered by native vegetation. However, this was not the case when paddocks or plantations were present nearby. Our study highlights the importance of examining interacting threats, and indicates that animal responses to fire management actions may differ according to the spatial arrangement of land-use types.
Read the full paper here -
This story by Holly Sitters was originally published in Pursuit. It features results from our new paper showing that land managers can help conserve kangaroos by providing a mix of fire histories within large expanses of native vegetation.
Find out more here: Delaney, L., Di Stefano, J. & Sitters, H. (2021). Mammal responses to spatial pattern in fire history depend on landscape context. Landscape Ecology. 36(3): 897-914.
While kangaroos are easier to spot than many of Australia’s more secretive native species, a suite of threats currently face these magnificent animals. The 2019-20 fire season was exceptional because, according to modern records, it consumed forests that had never before burnt at such vast scales.
As a research group, we've given a disproportionate level of attention to furry animals over the past few years, but Emma Window is helping redress the balance with her study of the effects of fire on flying insects. Given that she's been unable to visit the lab under coronavirus, she's got the lab to come to her!
I’m currently working my way through 162 invertebrate samples from 27 sites in the Otway Ranges with the aim of understanding the effect fire has on flying insect population structure in Australia. Existing Australian studies on fire and insects have primarily focused on terrestrial and litter dwelling invertebrates, which may have a different response to fire than their flying counterparts. Studies that include flying insects have been conducted overseas in forests where the vegetation structure is very different to that of Australian forests.
While a large team has worked in the Casterton region as part of the Fire & Fragmentation Project, Simeon has been going it alone on a closely-related project in the Adelaide Mount Lofty Ranges.
As the name suggests, the hills are precipitous and the human population is much larger than it is in the forgotten corners of southwest Victoria and southeast South Australia. Simeon has contended with bushfires and equipment theft (not to mention coronavirus!), but has recently achieved the great feat of tagging hundreds of thousands of camera-trap photos single-handedly!
As of last week, I have finished going through the vast numbers of images from my camera traps that I set between last October and March, and extracted all the data about what species were detected at each of my 129 sites (this is 3 less than I had previously, due to the Cudlee Creek fire and several missing cameras).
The following article by Lucy Smith was originally published in Australian Geographic and features Amy Smith's and Rachel Nalliah's PhD and Masters research (respectively).
Without Amy and Rachel's incredible trap-wrangling efforts and invaluable help from Erin Thomas and other students and volunteers, the life and times of the Glenelg Region's endangered heath mice would be set to remain a mystery!
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, meet the dayang (Pseudomys shortridgei) – heath dweller, flower feaster and day napper. At a petite 9.5-12cm, this long-whiskered lovely is a member of the Old World rat family, which will no doubt send shivers down the spine of musophobes! But fear not rat haters, this bobble-eyed, endangered heath mouse is at the cutting edge of scientific research into the link between fire and native species’ survival.
Lucy Smith holds a Master of Environmental Science, specialising in forest community ecology. Her interests span a range of ecological areas, including natural asset management in agriculture and the interaction between humans and wildlife.
We recently welcomed Milaan Heeskens but have had to wave him goodbye already because of COVID-19. Having struggled to find a flight, the Dutch Embassy came to his rescue and he was able to return home at the end of last week. Now we're welcoming Alex Santiago, who we hope will be able to stay for more than a few weeks! The prospects are good because he lives in Melbourne - albeit the chances of any face-to-face meetings through his Honours candidature are looking slim! The University has transitioned to a Virtual Campus so we're continuing our research from home. Please extend as warm a welcome to Alex as you can from behind your computer screen!
"I am an honours student working with the Fire Ecology and Biodiversity team, investigating fire and fragmentation in south-west Victoria. Under the supervision of Dr Holly Sitters, my project is investigating the influence of landscape-scale pattern on the genetic diversity of the South-eastern Slider skink. In 2017 skink tail-tip samples were collected by masters student Taylor Reid and sequenced using a relatively new method called DArT sequencing. We are hopeful that the use of genetic markers to infer population health across landscapes will assist in earlier and more effective management of populations and maintain species' persistence."
We'd like to extend a warm welcome to Milan Heeskens who's recently joined us from the Netherlands.
“I’m a 3rd year Dutch student studying applied biology at HAS University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. I have to fulfil 40 weeks of internship work this school year. I already have done 20 weeks of intern work at a water authority in the Netherlands (WL, Roermond). My project there was to investigate the effects of snags (dead wood) on the aquatic ecology of creeks. I researched that by catching macrofauna and compared that data with older data. It is amazing what creatures you can find in creeks and rivers.
"Now I am doing an internship for 20 weeks here at the School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences in Creswick. I’m researching whether fire has a direct impact on animals or if it impacts animals indirectly. Indirectly means that fires changes plant material (maybe food) or impacts the predators of the animal species and in that way still impacts the animal itself.”
Fire Ecology and Biodiversity at UniMelb
Bushfire Behaviour and Management at UniMelb
Quantitative & Applied Ecology Group at UniMelb
Integrated Forest Ecosystem Research at UniMelb