, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp 161-176

The influence of habitat disturbance on reptiles in a Box-Ironbark eucalypt forest of south-eastern Australia

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Abstract

Understanding how habitat disturbance affects the occurrence of fauna is an important issue in the effective management of habitat and conservation of biodiversity. In this study, 11 paired sites were established around the periphery of Rushworth State Forest in central Victoria, south-eastern Australia, to examine the influence of disturbance to structural complexity in the ground strata on the occurrence of reptiles. Study sites were paired on the basis of proximity, physiognomic and vegetational characteristics – each pair was established in the same vegetation 'type' (Ecological Vegetation Class) and was dominated by the overstorey species of Red Ironbark Eucalyptus tricarpa and Grey Box E. microcarpa, or Bull Mallee E. behriana and Grey Box. They were also paired on the basis that they had experienced different degrees of disturbance to the ground strata. Sites within each pair differed substantially in their ground-layer structure (e.g. number of stumps, total number of shrubs, litter depth), but were virtually indistinguishable in their overstorey characteristics (e.g. basal area, canopy cover, cover of tall shrubs). Surveys over two summer seasons using area-constrained active searches yielded ten species of reptiles from five families. Despite the repeated search effort, both the number of reptile species and individuals recorded per site were low (≤4 species, ≤17 individuals), suggesting the possibility of historical impoverishment. Reptiles were generally 2.4 times more abundant on 'undisturbed' than 'disturbed' sites. The disparity was also reflected in the number of species per site, which was significantly greater on the 'undisturbed' sites. The greater species richness and abundance of reptiles recorded for 'undisturbed' sites are attributed to the greater structural complexity of the ground strata on these sites. Effective management for reptiles, therefore, should aim to create, retain or increase the structural heterogeneity of a site, particularly in the ground-layers.