Contrasting fire-related resilience of ecologically dominant ants in tropical savannas of northern Australia

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Ecology and Biodiversity
TitleContrasting fire-related resilience of ecologically dominant ants in tropical savannas of northern Australia
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsAndersen, AN, Parr, CL, Lowe, LM, Müller, WJ
JournalDiversity and Distributions
Pagination438 - 446
Date Published07/2007
AbstractThis paper examines the role of fire in mediating the relative abundance of two of the world's major ecologically dominant ant genera, Iridomyrmex and Oecophylla, where they coexist across the tropical savanna landscapes of northern Australia. These taxa have contrasting biogeographical histories, which are predicted to lead to contrasting responses to fire. Iridomyrmex is an autochthonous Australian genus that has radiated primarily in the arid zone; as such, its abundance is predicted to be promoted by frequent fire because this maintains an open habitat. In contrast, Oecophylla is a genus of leaf-nesting ants occurring in the canopies of Old World tropical rainforest, and is a recent arrival to Australia in geological time; the abundance of these ants is predicted to decline under frequent fire. We test these predictions using results from a landscape-scale fire experiment, where three experimental fire regimes (including no fire) were applied to replicated subcatchments over a 5-year period. Using sweep nets, ants were sampled in the grass layer (the habitat layer of greatest overlap between Iridomyrmex and Oecophylla) in eucalypt woodland (canopy cover < 30%) and open eucalypt forest (canopy cover about 50%) habitats. A total of 27 species from 11 genera were collected during the study; eight were common enough for statistical analysis, and the abundances of four of these were significantly affected by fire treatment. As predicted, the abundance of Iridomyrmex was promoted by fire, whereas that of Oecophylla declined. These changes occurred only under late-season (relatively high intensity) fires, and for Oecophylla occurred only in open forest (not woodland) habitat. This fire-mediated relationship between Iridomyrmex and Oecophylla mirrors the much broader, ecosystem-wide dynamic between eucalypt-dominated savanna and rainforest in tropical Australia, with savannas dominated by fire-resistant sclerophyll elements of Australian origin, and rainforest dominated by fire-sensitive mesophyll elements of South-East Asian origin.
Refereed DesignationRefereed