Biodiversity May Protect Against Wildfires

Photo of a Southern brown bandicoot by John O’Neill via Wikimedia Commons.

New research in Australia’s forests and bushlands indicates that terrestrial biodiversity–or more precisely, a higher number of different mammal species–can help prevent wildfires given the way the critters alter their ecosystem. We’ve heard about different creative management options for fires before, and we care deeply for biodiversity preservation efforts, so this seems like one of those win-win scenarios if it can be implemented. Jason Goldman reports for UW’s Conservation Magazine on research published in Animal Conservation:

One factor leading to increased wildfire susceptibility might be surprising: biodiversity loss. In particular, the extinction of small, ground-dwelling mammals may prime Australia’s bush to burn.

Wildfires certainly threaten biodiversity in some cases. According to the IUCN, 179 mammal, 262 bird, 146 reptile, 300 amphibian, and 974 plant species can count wildfire (and fire suppression) among their existential threats. More wildfires means less wildlife, even accounting for the many ecosystems that are already fire-adapted. But according to a new study published in the journal Animal Conservation, it works the other way around too.

Matt Hayward, a conservation ecologist at Australia’s Bangor University and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, argues that restoring biodiversity could reduce the likelihood of a wildfire starting—or of spreading rapidly once it’s begun.

Australia has lost 29 of its 315 terrestrial mammals over the last two centuries. Some of these mammals only persist on nearby islands while others are truly extinct. Because there tends to be very little overlap in the role each species plays within an ecosystem, it’s unlikely that another species could continue doing the work of one that goes missing.

One of the most important sources of flammable material, as far as wildfires go, is leaf litter. And fossorial species—those critters that dig and burrow—help reduce the amount of leaf litter on a landscape. In part, that’s because they stir it all up, but it’s also because holes and burrows in the ground retain moisture, which helps to break down dead leaves. If those critters disappear, then leaf litter accumulates and all it takes is one spark for a landscape to go up in flames.

At least, that’s the hypothesis.

To find out if fossorial species really do help reduce the volume of leaf litter—and whether that in turn reduces the likelihood of a wildfire—Hayward and his colleagues turned to a set of three restoration sites managed by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. Within each there were smaller fenced areas that kept introduced mammals, like red foxes, rabbits, domestic cats, and domestic livestock out, while allowing for the reintroduction of locally extinct fossorial species, like the tammar wallaby, bridled nailtail wallaby, greater stick-nest rat, southern brown bandicoot, numbat, and others.

Find out the conclusion of the study by reading the original article here.

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