Landscape Ecology

, Volume 28, Issue 8, pp 1505–1516 | Cite as

Escaping the flames: large termitaria as refugia from fire in miombo woodland

  • Grant S. Joseph
  • Colleen L. Seymour
  • Graeme S. Cumming
  • Zacheus Mahlangu
  • David H. M. Cumming
Research article


At finer scales, spatial heterogeneity can influence fire intensity and severity. To test whether Macrotermes termite mounds act as fire refugia for woody plants, we assessed effects of fire on individual plants, woody plant structure and composition in a miombo woodland in Zimbabwe, where elephants have decreased tree cover, leading to increased grass cover, fuelling greater intensity fires. We compared exposure to fire on 47 paired mound-matrix plots at three sites. Mound-based woody plants were less exposed to fire than those in matrix positions. Woody species composition differed between mound and matrix, and there were more tall trees on mounds. We assessed grass cover, elephant damage, fire damage and resprouting response for all woody plants found on 10 paired mound-matrix plots that had been equally exposed to severe late dry season fires. Grass cover was three times greater for matrix sites, where 85 % of woody species experienced heavy fire damage, compared to 29 % for mounds. Matrix species were nearly 31 times more likely than mound species to exhibit a vigorous resprouting response after fire damage, all else being equal. The distinct composition of termitaria vegetation has been attributed to edaphic factors. To this should be added the fire-retardant properties of mounds, allowing woody species that might otherwise have been excluded, to persist in a fire-prone system. Thus, spatial pattern created by termitaria is reinforced through exclusion of fire, allowing different species composition and structure. Since termitaria are important for productivity and biodiversity, the refuge effect is significant for the system.


Chizarira National Park Elephant herbivory Macrotermes Ordinal logistic regression Resilience Resprouting Savanna Spatial heterogeneity 



This research was funded by an NRF-SADC collaborative grant and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute. The Director General of the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZNPWMA) granted research permission for work within CNP through a memorandum of understanding between ZNPWMA and the Tropical Resource Ecology Programme (TREP) at the University of Zimbabwe. We gratefully acknowledge the support we received from both agencies and CNP staff in the field, and thank four anonymous reviewers for comments that strengthened the manuscript.

Supplementary material

10980_2013_9897_MOESM1_ESM.docx (19 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 19 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Grant S. Joseph
    • 1
  • Colleen L. Seymour
    • 1
    • 2
  • Graeme S. Cumming
    • 1
  • Zacheus Mahlangu
    • 3
  • David H. M. Cumming
    • 1
    • 3
  1. 1.Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, DST/NRF Centre of ExcellenceUniversity of Cape TownRondeboschSouth Africa
  2. 2.Applied Biodiversity Research Division, South African National Biodiversity InstituteKirstenbosch Research CentreClaremontSouth Africa
  3. 3.Tropical Resource Ecology Programme, Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of ZimbabweHarareZimbabwe

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