Protecting Australian reptiles – A Burning Question!

By Reptile Encounters/28 July 2015

Burning on a regular basis is a fact of life in Australia. Whether it’s called prescribed, planned or controlled, these burns are seriously important, for many reasons. But how do they affect the reptile populations in the areas that are being burnt?

We’re going to take a look at why burning is really important but may need to be adapted to help reptiles.

Why is it important to burn?

There’s no doubt about it, scheduled burning is seriously important for loads of reasons; here’s just some of them:

  • Making sure there’s less fuel for the fire. Burning vegetation means there’s not as much to burn if there’s an unexpected fire. This helps to save human and animal lives.
  • Helping vegetation to grow back when it’s disturbed. Sometimes plant and tree life are disturbed by things such as mining. Burning areas of vegetation can help young seedlings grow and settle in the area because they don’t have competition from older vegetation. The ash also acts as a fertilizer for the new seedlings.
  • Getting to know more about fire and its effect on the environment.

So, burning is a must do, and it’s something that is going to continue. So what does that mean for the reptiles?

Planned burning

Reptiles and fire, what does the research say?

In February 2015, research results were published in The International Journal of Wildland Fire, dealing with effects of burning on the wildlife in the area. So let’s take a look at some of the things the researchers found out.

  • Larger numbers of species such as the Desert Skink (Liopholis Inornata) were found in areas that had been burnt in the previous 8 to 13 years; the more recent burns. This also applies to the Western Heath Dragon (Ctenophorus Adelaidensis), according to previous research completed by Murdoch University.
  • Other species seem to be less common in these areas suggesting that they prefer vegetation that’s been left longer without burning. Results of the Murdoch University research also suggested this, by finding that species like the Black-Striped Snake, was captured less during the research.
  • The effect of burning doesn’t just depend on the species; the same type of reptile can prefer a recently burnt area in one area of the country and one less recently burnt in another part of the country.
  • Changing the burning pattern, so that some areas remain unburned for up to 40 years, can help to improve the diversity of all species including reptiles.

So what does all of this mean?

Desert skink

Desert skinks exist in high numbers in more recently burnt areas (Image courtesy of Museum Victoria)

Helping our Reptiles

Land managers can take this research into account when they’re looking at how to best manage burning. There are ways they can find some areas which could be burnt less often, such as land where unplanned fires are less common.

It’s not that simple, of course, and everything has to be taken into account, such as human safety. But places like Perth, which holds the title for highest reptile species variation in the world need to be properly protected with planned burning in order to ensure survival of our amazing and unique reptiles.

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