Burning for birds : the response of bird communities to recent fire history in the Serengeti ecosystem

Master Thesis

2014

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University of Cape Town

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Fire is a ubiquitous ecosystem process with important implications for savanna ecology and conservation. In this study we aimed to explore the short-term and long-term effects of recent fire history on bird communities in the greater Serengeti savanna ecosystem in Tanzania. The study investigated the influence of immediate fire event history ( < one year), cumulative fire regime history (over 14 years), and fire seasonality on bird assemblages. We predicted that the occurrence of recent fire events and cumulative fire regime history would influence bird communities, particularly through its impact on vegetation structure. We mapped fire activity from remote sensing data (2000-2013) and extracted mean rainfall and nitrogen estimates from interpolated maps. We conducted field sampling of bird community composition and vegetation structure at 207 sample sites distributed across the western Serengeti ecosystem. We tested the structuring effect and regression trends of recent fire event occurrence, cumulative fires regimes, rainfall, and nitrogen on bird community structure and vegetation, and tested the response of birds to vegetation. Despite a high degree of variation in bird communities and vegetation structure, our results suggested that fire regimes do indeed impact bird communities with important conservation implications. We detected the strongest changes in bird community structure, diversity, and density in response to the immediate impact of a fire event and post-fire regeneration processes, and weaker effects to cumulative fire regime history. Short fire season burning (Feb-April) appears to have significant influence on birds and vegetation structure, and these preliminary findings warrant further investigation. While our findings do not have alarming conservation implications, the effects of seasonality and frequency of fires are not negligible. We recommend against extensive burning practices over short periods to allow continuity in the landscape. We recommend greater forethought among conservation managers, bearing in mind both short-term and longterm habitat changes caused by burning and the consequent bird assemblages impacted. We advise focused research on species and functional groups of conservation interest.
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