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Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research

Extinction of biota by fires

Gill, A.M.(1) and Bradstock, R.(2)

(1) Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research, G.P.O. Box 1600, Canberra, A.C.T. 2601 Australia.

(2) NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, P.O. Box 1967, Hurstville, N.S.W. 2220 Australia.


Legislative imperatives to conserve biota aim to prevent extinctions. Extinctions can be local or nationwide, temporary or permanent. Here, examples of fire-caused extinctions of plants and animals in Australia are reviewed using simple models.

Historically, many plant species have become locally extinct due to too-frequent fires. Typically, these species have fire-sensitive adults and rely on seed for their re-establishment after fire ("obligate seeder species"). Fire-sensitive species may become rare and become confined to "fire shadows" in the landscape.

Breeding populations of small mammal species become locally extinct (temporarily) after waves of population growth at various times after fires in eastern Australian forests and heaths. Recolonization may occur in these apparently facultative habitats from core areas where the species is found always, perhaps independent of fire occurrence.

A suite of small mammalian herbivores and omnivores have become extinct in arid Australia but the role of fires in these extinctions needs clarification. Changes in the patchiness of fires have been implicated. The sizes, shapes and distributions of burned areas for the fire management of reserves need to be determined.

Derivation of simple rules to guide management is possible based on existing knowledge. Fire managers faced with the possibility of extinctions from reserves where conservation is important can use monitoring systems to assist in implementing such rules. Indeed, monitoring can be based on the sensitivities of plant species to fires in order to guide decision making relevant to the frequency of planned fires and the suppression of unplanned ("wild") fires.

Published in: Conserving Biodiversity: Threats and Solutions, pp. 309-22, Surrey Beatty & Sons, (1995).

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Updated 15 November, 1999 by Andrew Lyne
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