Plant Ecology

, Volume 217, Issue 6, pp 711–724 | Cite as

Post-fire resprouting strategies of rainforest and savanna saplings along the rainforest–savanna boundary in the Australian monsoon tropics

  • Stefania Ondei
  • Lynda D. Prior
  • Tom Vigilante
  • David M. J. S. Bowman


In tropical areas where climatic conditions support both rainforests and savannas, fire is considered one of the main factors determining their distribution, particularly in environments where growth rates are limited by water availability. The observed expansion of some rainforests into savannas suggests that rainforest saplings could have traits that enable them to survive in the savanna environment, including recovering from infrequent fires. We applied the Clarke (New Phytol 197:19–35, 2013) buds-protection-resources framework to the rainforest–savanna system of the North Kimberley (Western Australia), to compare the resprouting response of five savanna species saplings burnt by an ambient early dry season fire with seven rainforest species saplings burnt using an experimental treatment that mimicked a savanna fire. Most plants survived the fire, although plant mortality was higher for rainforest (19 %) than savanna (2 %) individuals, as was stem mortality (37 vs. 12 %). All rainforest and savanna species expressed aerial resprouting; two of the savanna species and two of the rainforest species did not express basal resprouting. After 1 year, most savanna individuals had more and longer shoots than the rainforest saplings and had regained their original height, while rainforest plants were on average 43 % shorter than their pre-fire height. These results suggest that, although rainforest species are less able to escape the ‘fire trap’ than savanna species, they are able to recover from a low-intensity fire.


Fire Monsoon rainforest Plant functional traits Resprouting Stem mortality Tropical savanna 



This study was co-founded by the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation and Bush Heritage Australia as part of their “Healthy Country” land management plan. We thank the Uunguu Rangers and Traditional Owners for the support provided in the field.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

11258_2015_531_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (74 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 74 kb)
11258_2015_531_MOESM2_ESM.pdf (255 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (PDF 255 kb)


  1. Banfai DS, Bowman DMJS (2006) Forty years of lowland monsoon rainforest expansion in Kakadu National Park, Northern Australia. Biol Conserv 131:553–565CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Beard JS (ed) (1979) Vegetation survey of Western Australia: Kimberley 1:1 000 000 vegetation series sheet 1. University of Western Australia Press, PerthGoogle Scholar
  3. Beard JS (1990) Plant life of Western Australia. Kangaroo Press, KenthurstGoogle Scholar
  4. Beard JS, Clyton-Greene KA, Kenneally KF (1984) Notes on the vegetation of the Bougainville Peninsula, Osborn and Institut Islands, North Kimberley District, Western Australia. Vegetatio 57:3–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bond WJ, Midgley GF (2000) A proposed CO2-controlled mechanism of woody plant invasion in grasslands and savannas. Glob Change Biol 6:865–869CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bond WJ, Midgley GF (2012) Carbon dioxide and the uneasy interactions of trees and savannah grasses. Philos Trans R Soc B 367:601–612CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bowman D (1991) Recovery of some northern Australian monsoon forest tree species following fire. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland, pp 21–25Google Scholar
  8. Bowman DMJS (2000) Australian rainforests: islands of green in a land of fire. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bowman D (2005) Understanding a flammable planet—climate, fire and global vegetation patterns. New Phytol 165:341–345CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Bowman DMJS, Panton WJ (1993) Factors that control monsoon-rainforest seedling establishment and growth in North Australian eucalyptus savanna. J Ecol 81:297–304CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bowman DMJS, Panton WJ (1994) Fire and cyclone damage to woody vegetation on the north coast of the Northern Territory, Australia. Aust Geogr 25:32–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bowman DMJS, Walsh A, Milne DJ (2001) Forest expansion and grassland contraction within a Eucalyptus savanna matrix between 1941 and 1994 at Litchfield National Park in the Australian monsoon tropics. Glob Ecol Biogeogr 10:535–548CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bowman D, Murphy BP, Banfai DS (2010) Has global environmental change caused monsoon rainforests to expand in the Australian monsoon tropics? Landscape Ecol 25:1247–1260CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Bowman DMJS, MacDermott HJ, Nichols SC, Murphy BP (2014) A grass-fire cycle eliminates an obligate-seeding tree in a tropical savanna. Ecol Evol 4:4185–4194CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  15. Brando PM, Nepstad DC, Balch JK, Bolker B, Christman MC, Coe M, Putz FE (2012) Fire-induced tree mortality in a neotropical forest: the roles of bark traits, tree size, wood density and fire behavior. Glob Change Biol 18:630–641CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Bureau of Meteorology (2015) Climate Data: Australia (CD). Climate Services, Bureau of Meteorology, Kent Town
  17. Burnham KP, Anderson DR (2002) Model selection and multimodel inference: a practical information-theoretic approach. Springer, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  18. Burnham KP, Anderson DR (2004) Multimodel inference understanding AIC and BIC in model selection. Sociol Methods Res 33:261–304CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Burrows GE (2013) Buds, bushfires and resprouting in the eucalypts. Aust J Bot 61:331CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Byram GM (1959) Combustion of forest fuels. In: Davis KP (ed) Forest fire: control and use. McGraw-Hill, New York, pp 61–89Google Scholar
  21. Campbell ML, Clarke PJ (2006) Response of montane wet sclerophyll forest understorey species to fire: evidence from high and low intensity fires. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, p 63Google Scholar
  22. Charles-Dominique T, Beckett H, Midgley GF, Bond WJ (2015) Bud protection: a key trait for species sorting in a forest–savanna mosaic. New Phytol 207:1052–1060CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Clarke PJ, Lawes MJ, Midgley JJ, Lamont BB, Ojeda F, Burrows GE, Enright NJ, Knox KJE (2013) Resprouting as a key functional trait: how buds, protection and resources drive persistence after fire. New Phytol 197:19–35CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Clarke PJ, Lawes MJ, Murphy BP, Russell-Smith J, Nano CEM, Bradstock R, Enright NJ, Fontaine JB, Gosper CR, Radford I, Midgley JJ, Gunton RM (2015) A synthesis of postfire recovery traits of woody plants in Australian ecosystems. Sci Total Environ 534:31–42CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Clayton-Greene KA, Beard JS (1985) The fire factor in vine thicket and woodland vegetation of the Admiralty Gulf region, north-west Kimberley, Western Australia. Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia, pp 225–230Google Scholar
  26. Craig A (1997) Fire management of rangelands in the Kimberley low-rainfall zone: a review. Rangel J 21:39–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Crisp MD, Burrows GE, Cook LG, Thornhill AH, Bowman DMJS (2011) Flammable biomes dominated by eucalypts originated at the Cretaceous–Palaeogene boundary. Nat Commun 2:193CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. de Dantas VL, Pausas JG (2013) The lanky and the corky: fire-escape strategies in savanna woody species. J Ecol 101:1265–1272CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. de Dantasde VL, Batalha MA, Pausas JG (2013) Fire drives functional thresholds on the savanna-forest transition. Ecology 94:2454–2463CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Drake BG, Gonzàlez-Meler MA, Long SP (1997) More efficient plants: a consequence of rising atmospheric CO2? Ann Rev Plant Physiol Plant Mol Biol 48:609–639CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Fairfax R, Fensham R, Butler D, Quinn K, Sigley B, Holman J (2009) Effects of multiple fires on tree invasion in montane grasslands. Landscape Ecol 24:1363–1373CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Fensham RJ, Fairfax RJ, Butler DW, Bowman DMJS (2003) Effects of fire and drought in a tropical eucalypt savanna colonized by rain forest. J Biogeogr 30:1405–1414CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Franklin DC, Gunton RM, Schatz JON, Lawes MJ (2010) Resprouting responses of trees in a fire-prone tropical savanna following severe tornado damage. Austral Ecol 35:685–694CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Gignoux J, Lahoreau G, Julliard R, Barot S (2009) Establishment and early persistence of tree seedlings in an annually burned savanna. J Ecol 97:484–495CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hao G-Y, Hoffmann WA, Scholz FG, Bucci SJ, Meinzer FC, Franco AC, Cao K-F, Goldstein G (2008) Stem and leaf hydraulics of congeneric tree species from adjacent tropical savanna and forest ecosystems. Oecologia 155:405–415CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Hennenberg KJ, Fischer F, Kouadio K, Goetze D, Orthmann B, Linsenmair KE, Jeltsch F, Porembski S (2006) Phytomass and fire occurrence along forest-savanna transects in the Comoé National Park, Ivory Coast. J Trop Ecol 22:303–311CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hoffmann WA (2000) Post-establishment seedling success in the Brazilian Cerrado: a comparison of savanna and forest species. Biotropica 32:62–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hoffmann WA, Bazzaz FA, Chatterton NJ, Harrison PA, Jackson RB (2000) Elevated CO2 enhances resprouting of a tropical savanna tree. Oecologia 123:312–317CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Hoffmann WA, Orthen B, Nascimento PKVD (2003) Comparative fire ecology of tropical savanna and forest trees. Funct Ecol 17:720–726CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Hoffmann WA, Orthen B, Franco AC (2004) Constraints to seedling success of savanna and forest trees across the savanna-forest boundary. Oecologia 140:252–260CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Hoffmann WA, Adasme R, Haridasan M, de Carvalho MT, Geiger EL, Pereira MAB, Gotsch SG, Franco AC (2009) Tree topkill, not mortality, governs the dynamics of savanna-forest boundaries under frequent fire in central Brazil. Ecology 90:1326–1337CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Hoffmann WA, Geiger EL, Gotsch SG, Rossatto DR, Silva LCR, Lau OL, Haridasan M, Franco AC, Lloret F (2012a) Ecological thresholds at the savanna-forest boundary: how plant traits, resources and fire govern the distribution of tropical biomes. Ecol Lett 15:759–768CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Hoffmann WA, Jaconis SY, McKinley KL, Geiger EL, Gotsch SG, Franco AC (2012b) Fuels or microclimate? Understanding the drivers of fire feedbacks at savanna-forest boundaries. Austral Ecol 37:634–643CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Keeley JE, Pausas JG, Rundel PW, Bond WJ, Bradstock RA (2011) Opinion: fire as an evolutionary pressure shaping plant traits. Trends Plant Sci 16:406–411CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Lacey C (1974) Rhizomes in tropical eucalypts and their role in recovery from fire damage. Aust J Bot 22:29–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lawes MJ, Adie H, Russell-Smith J, Murphy B, Midgley JJ (2011a) How do small savanna trees avoid stem mortality by fire? The roles of stem diameter, height and bark thickness. Ecosphere 2(4):art42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Lawes MJ, Richards A, Dathe J, Midgley JJ (2011b) Bark thickness determines fire resistance of selected tree species from fire-prone tropical savanna in north Australia. Plant Ecol 212:2057–2069CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lawes MJ, Midgley JJ, Clarke PJ (2013) Costs and benefits of relative bark thickness in relation to fire damage: a savanna/forest contrast. J Ecol 101:517–524CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Lewis SL, Lloyd J, Sitch S, Mitchard ETA, Laurance WF (2009) Changing ecology of tropical forests: evidence and drivers. Annu Rev Ecol Evol Syst 40:529–549CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Little JK, Williams SE, Prior LD, Williamson GJ, Bowman DMJS (2012) Fire weather risk differs across rain forest-savanna boundaries in the humid tropics of north-eastern Australia. Austral Ecol 37:915–925CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Lloyd J, Farquhar GD (2008) Effects of rising temperatures and [CO2] on the physiology of tropical forest trees. Philos Trans R Soc B 363:1811–1817CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Marrinan MJ, Edwards W, Landsberg J (2005) Resprouting of saplings following a tropical rainforest fire in north-east Queensland, Australia. Austral Ecol 30:817–826CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Müller SC, Overbeck GE, Pfadenhauer J, Pillar VD (2007) Plant functional types of woody species related to fire disturbance in forest-grassland ecotones. Plant Ecol 189:1–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Murphy BP, Bowman DMJS (2012) What controls the distribution of tropical forest and savanna? Ecol Lett 15:748–758CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. Murphy BP, Lehmann CER, Russell-Smith J, Lawes MJ (2014) Fire regimes and woody biomass dynamics in Australian savannas. J Biogeogr 41:133–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. North Australian Fire Information (NAFI) (2015)
  57. Pausas JG (2015) Bark thickness and fire regime. Funct Ecol 29:315–327CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Pérez B, Moreno JM (1998) Methods for quantifying fire severity in shrubland-fires. Plant Ecol 139:91–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Perez-Harguindeguy N, Gurvich DE, Urcelay C, Veneklaas EJ, Reich PB, Poorter L, Wright IJ, Ray P, Enrico L, Pausas JG, de Vos AC, Diaz S, Buchmann N, Funes G, Quetier F, Hodgson JG, Thompson K, Morgan HD, ter Steege H, van der Heijden MGA, Sack L, Blonder B, Garnier E, Poschlod P, Vaieretti MV, Conti G, Staver AC, Aquino S, Cornelissen JHC, Lavorel S, Poorter H, Jaureguiberry P, Bret-Harte MS, Cornwell WK, Craine JM (2013) New handbook for standardised measurement of plant functional traits worldwide. Aust J Bot 61:167–234CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Poorter L, Kitajima K, Mercado P, Chubiña J, Melgar I, Prins HHT (2010) Resprouting as a persistence strategy of tropical forest trees: relations with carbohydrate storage and shade tolerance. Ecology 91:2613–2627CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. Prior LD, Bowman DMJS, Eamus D (2004) Seasonal differences in leaf attributes in Australian tropical tree species: family and habitat comparisons. Funct Ecol 18:707–718CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. R Core Team (2013) R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, ViennaGoogle Scholar
  63. Radford IJ (2010) Fire regimes and regional biodiversity declines in northwest Australian tropical savannas? Review of knowledge and recommendations for future research. Conserv Sci West Aust 7:469–479Google Scholar
  64. Ratnam J, Bond WJ, Fensham RJ, Hoffmann WA, Archibald S, Lehmann CER, Anderson MT, Higgins SI, Sankaran M (2011) When is a ‘forest’ a savanna, and why does it matter? Glob Ecol Biogeogr 20:653–660CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Reisinger A, Kitching RL, Chiew F, Hughes L, Newton PCD, Schuster SS, Tait A and Whetton P (2014) Australasia. In: Barros VR, Field CB, Dokken DJ, Mastrandrea MD, Mach KJ, Bilir TE, Chatterjee M, Ebi KL, Estrada YO, Genova RC, Girma B, Kissel ES, Levy AN, MacCracken S, Mastrandrea PR and White LL (eds) Climate change 2014: Impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Part B: Regional aspects. Contribution of working group II to the fifth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge pp 1371–1438Google Scholar
  66. Rossatto DR, Hoffmann WA, Franco AC (2009) Differences in growth patterns between co-occurring forest and savanna trees affect the forest-savanna boundary. Funct Ecol 23:689–698CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Russell-Smith J, Edwards AC (2006) Seasonality and fire severity in savanna landscapes of monsoonal northern Australia. International Journal of Wildland Fire 15:541–550CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Russell-Smith J, Setterfield SA (2006) Monsoon rain forest seedling dynamics, northern Australia: contrasts with regeneration in eucalypt-dominated savannas. J Biogeogr 33:1597–1614CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Russell-Smith J, Stanton PJ, Edwards AC, Whitehead PJ (2004) Rain forest invasion of eucalypt-dominated woodland savanna, Iron Range, north-eastern Australia: II. Rates of landscape change. J Biogeogr 31:1305–1316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Setterfield SA, Rossiter-Rachor NA, Hutley LB, Douglas MM, Williams RJ (2010) Turning up the heat: the impacts of Andropogon gayanus (gamba grass) invasion on fire behaviour in northern Australian savannas. Divers Distrib 16:854–861CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Tng DYP, Murphy BP, Weber E, Sanders G, Williamson GJ, Kemp J, Bowman DMJS (2012) Humid tropical rain forest has expanded into eucalypt forest and savanna over the last 50 years. Ecol Evol 2(1):34–45CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  72. Trauernicht C, Murphy BP, Portner TE, Bowman DMJS (2012) Tree cover–fire interactions promote the persistence of a fire-sensitive conifer in a highly flammable savanna. J Ecol 100:958–968CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Trauernicht C, Murphy BP, Tangalin N, Bowman DMJS (2013) Cultural legacies, fire ecology, and environmental change in the Stone Country of Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park, Australia. Ecol Evol 3:286–297CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  74. Trollope WSW (1984) Fire in Savanna. In: de Booysen P, Tainton N (eds) Ecological Effects of Fire in South African Ecosystems. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg, pp 149–175CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Vigilante T, Bowman DMJS (2004) Effects of fire history on the structure and floristic composition of woody vegetation around Kalumburu, North Kimberley, Australia: a landscape-scale natural experiment. Aust J Bot 52:381–404CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Vigilante T, Bowman DMJS, Fisher R, Russel-Smith J, Yates C (2004) Contemporary landscape burning patterns in the far North Kimberley region of north-west Australia: human influences and environmental determinants. J Biogeogr 31:1317–1333CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Werner PA, Prior LD (2013) Demography and growth of subadult savanna trees: interactions of life history, size, fire season, and grassy understory. Ecol Monogr 83:67–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Williams PR (2000) Fire-stimulated rainforest seedling recruitment and vegetative regeneration in a densely grassed wet sclerophyll forest of north-eastern Australia. Aust J Bot 48:651–658CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Williams PR, Parsons M, Jensen R, Tran C (2012) Mechanisms of rainforest persistence and recruitment in frequently burnt wet tropical eucalypt forests. Austral Ecol 37:268–275CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Zimmer HC, Auld TD, Hughes L, Offord CA, Baker PJ (2015) Fuel flammability and fire responses of juvenile canopy species in a temperate rainforest ecosystem. Int J Wildland Fire 24:349–360CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stefania Ondei
    • 1
  • Lynda D. Prior
    • 1
  • Tom Vigilante
    • 2
    • 3
  • David M. J. S. Bowman
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of TasmaniaSandy BayAustralia
  2. 2.Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal CorporationWyndhamAustralia
  3. 3.Bush Heritage AustraliaMelbourneAustralia

Personalised recommendations