Variable rainfall has a greater effect than fire on the demography of the dominant tree in a semi-arid Eucalyptus savanna
Fensham, RJ and Freeman, ME and Laffineur, B and Macdermott, H and Prior, LD and Werner, PA, Variable rainfall has a greater effect than fire on the demography of the dominant tree in a semi-arid Eucalyptus savanna, Austral Ecology, 42, (7) pp. 772-782. ISSN 1442-9985 (2017) [Refereed Article]
Rainfall, fire and competition are emphasized as determinants of the density and basal area of woody vegetation in savanna. The semi-arid savannas of Australia have substantial multi-year rainfall deficits and insufficient grass fuel to carry annual fire in contrast to the mesic savannas in more northern regions. This study investigates the influence of rainfall deficit and excess, fire and woody competition on the population dynamics of a dominant tree in a semi-arid savanna. All individuals of Eucalyptus melanophloia were mapped and monitored in three, 1-ha plots over an 8.5 year period encompassing wet and dry periods. The plots were unburnt, burnt once and burnt twice. A competition index incorporating the size and distance of neighbours to target individuals was determined. Supplementary studies examined seedling recruitment and the transition of juvenile trees into the sapling layer. Mortality of burnt seedlings was related to lignotuber area but the majority of seedlings are fire resistant within 12 months of germination. Most of the juveniles (≤1 cm dbh) of E. melanophloia either died in the dry period or persisted as juveniles throughout 8.5 years of monitoring. Mortality of juveniles was positively related to woody competition and was higher in the dry period than the wet period. The transition of juveniles to a larger size class occurred at extremely low rates, and a subsidiary study along a clearing boundary suggests release from woody competition allows transition into the sapling layer. From three fires the highest proportion of saplings (1-10 cm dbh) reduced to juveniles was only 5.6% suggesting rates of 'top-kill' of E. melanophloia as a result of fire are relatively low. Girth growth was enhanced in wet years, particularly for larger trees (>10 cm dbh), but all trees regardless of size or woody competition levels are vulnerable to drought-induced mortality. Overall the results suggest that variations in rainfall, especially drought-induced mortality, have a much stronger influence on the tree demographics of E. melanophloia in a semi-arid savanna of north-eastern Australia than fire.
competition, drought, Eucalyptus savanna, fire, tree mortality, tree regeneration