Landscape Ecology

, Volume 29, Issue 4, pp 703–714 | Cite as

Vegetation structure moderates the effect of fire on bird assemblages in a heterogeneous landscape

  • Philip S. BartonEmail author
  • Karen Ikin
  • Annabel L. Smith
  • Christopher MacGregor
  • David B. Lindenmayer
Research Article


Ecological theory predicting the impact of fire on ecological communities is typically focused on post-disturbance recovery processes or on disturbance-diversity dynamics. Yet the established relationship between vegetation structure and animal diversity could provide a foundation to predict the short-term effects of fire on biodiversity, but has rarely been explored. We tested the hypothesis that fire effects on bird assemblages would be moderated by increasing vegetation structure. We examined bird assemblages in burnt and unburnt sites at 1 and 6 years after a wildfire, and compared richness and composition responses among and within three structurally distinct vegetation types in the same landscape: heath, woodland and forest. We found that short-term changes in bird assemblage composition were largest in simple heath vegetation and smallest in complex forest vegetation. The short-term change in species richness was larger in forest than in heath. We also found that among-site assemblage variability was greater shortly after fire in heath and woodland vegetation compared with forest vegetation. Our results indicate that complexity in vegetation structure, particularly overstorey cover, can act as an important moderator of fire effects on bird assemblages. Mechanisms for this response include a greater loss of structure in vegetation characterised by a single low stratum, and a proportionally greater change in bird species composition despite a smaller absolute change in species richness. We discuss our results in the context of a new conceptual model that predicts contrasting richness and composition responses of bird assemblages following disturbance along a gradient of increasing vegetation structure. This model brings a different perspective to current theories of disturbance, and has implications for understanding and managing the effects of fire on biodiversity in heterogeneous landscapes.


Conceptual model Community composition Disturbance Habitat complexity Patch-mosaic Succession 



We thank staff from Parks Australia and the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community for their strong support of our work. We thank Claire Foster for comments on an early draft of the manuscript. Funding for this study came from Parks Australia, the Department of Defence, and the Australian Research Council. All work reported in this study complies with the current laws of Australia.

Supplementary material

10980_2014_17_MOESM1_ESM.docx (131 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 131 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip S. Barton
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Karen Ikin
    • 1
    • 2
  • Annabel L. Smith
    • 1
    • 2
  • Christopher MacGregor
    • 1
  • David B. Lindenmayer
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  1. 1.Fenner School of Environment and SocietyThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  2. 2.Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions and National Environmental Research Program Environmental Decisions HubThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  3. 3.Long-Term Ecological Research NetworkThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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