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Long-term fire exclusion and ant community structure in an Australian tropical savanna: congruence with vegetation succession

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Abstract Aim 

To examine the extent to which succession from tropical savanna to rain forest in the long-term absence of fire is matched by successional changes in ant communities. This is done by describing ant community responses to 23 years of fire exclusion in a northern Australian tropical savanna, with a particular focus on the extent of colonization by specialist rain forest taxa. Location 

Solar Village, near Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory. Methods 

Ants were sampled within 12 plots located inside (‘unburnt’– protected from fire for 23 years) and outside (burnt every 1–2 years) Solar Village in ridge and slope habitat dominated by Eucalyptus spp. The litter, ground-foraging and arboreal faunas were sampled separately, using Berlese funnels, unbaited pitfall traps and baited pitfall traps attached to tree trunks, respectively. Each species was assigned a forest-association score ranging from 0 (open savanna species) to 3 (specialist forest species) based on their known habitat preferences in the region. Results 

A total of 85 ant species from 35 genera were recorded, with multivariate analysis demonstrating distinct litter, ground and arboreal communities. Ant communities also varied substantially with topographic position, which interacted strongly with fire exclusion. A total of 72 species were recorded in burnt habitat, compared with only 45 in unburnt, and the number of ant species records was also about twice as high in burnt compared with unburnt habitat. Fire exclusion has resulted in a dramatic increase in forest-associated taxa (those occurring in forest and denser, but rarely open, savanna), with such species representing 51% of species records in unburnt habitat compared with 19% in burnt. However, only five specialist forest species were recorded, representing < 1% of total ant records. Main conclusions 

Fire exclusion at Solar Village has markedly increased the prevalence of forest-associated ant species, but has led to only very minor incursions by specialist rain forest ant taxa. These responses match very closely those of the vegetation.
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Keywords: Ants; Australia; Northern Territory; Solar Village; colonization; fire; forest–savanna boundaries; rain forest; tropical savanna

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, CSIRO Tropical Ecosystems Research Centre, Winnellie, NT 2: Biodiversity Branch, Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Environment, Palmerston, NT, Australia

Publication date: May 1, 2006

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