Landscape Ecology

, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 13–28 | Cite as

Alternative stable states and the role of fire–vegetation–soil feedbacks in the temperate wilderness of southwest Tasmania

  • Sam W. Wood
  • David M. J. S. Bowman
Research Article


Two ecological models have been put forward to explain the dynamics of fire-promoting and fire-sensitive vegetation in southwest Tasmania: the alternative stable states model of Jackson (in Proc Ecol Soc Aust 3:9–16, 1968) and the sharpening switch model of Mount (in Search 10:180–186, 1979). Assessing the efficacy of these models requires high resolution spatio-temporal data on whether vegetation patterns are stable or dynamic across landscapes. We analysed ortho-rectified sequences of aerial photography and satellite imagery from 1948, 1988 and 2010 to detect decadal scale changes in forest and non-forest vegetation cover in southwest Tasmania. There was negligible change from forest to non-forest (<0.05%) and only a modest change from non-forest to forest over the study period. Forest cover increased by 4.1% between 1948 and 1988, apparently due to the recovery of forest vegetation following stand-replacing fire prior to 1948. Forest cover increased by 0.8% between 1988 and 2010, reflecting the limited ability of forest to invade treeless areas. The two models include interactions between vegetation, fire and soil, which we investigated by analysing the chemical (phosphorus, nitrogen) and physical properties (clay, silt) of 128 soil samples collected across 34 forest–non-forest boundaries. Phosphorus in the upper horizon was typically lower in non-forest vegetation compared to forest vegetation, which is consistent with proposed fire–vegetation–soil feedbacks. Mineral horizons were dominated by sand, with low levels of clay under all vegetation types. Available field evidence lends support to the Jackson (1968) alternative stable states model as the most suitable model of vegetation dynamics on nutrient poor substrates in southwest Tasmania although modifications of the timeframes for transitions toward rainforest are required.


Alternative stable states Fire Forest Positive feedbacks Aerial photography Phosphorus 



This work was supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (award no. DP0878177), a Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment (award no. B0017510) and a Planet Action Imagery Grant (project ID: 7528). We thank David Wilson for producing the ortho-rectified photo mosaics; Scott Browning, Laura Reid and Mike Perring for assistance with the field program; and Brett Murphy and Lynda Prior for statistical advice. We thank Jon Marsden-Smedley for use of his fire maps. Phosphorus analysis was conducted at the Ecosystems Research Laboratory at the University of Western Australia.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 13 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 17 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Plant Science, University of TasmaniaHobartAustralia

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