Fire affects microhabitat selection, movement patterns, and body condition of an Australian rodent (Rattus fuscipes)

Authors: Amber Fordyce, Bronwyn A Hradsky, Euan G Ritchie, And Julian Di Stefano

Published in: Journal of Mammalogy, October 2015 (online)

Abstract

Resource selection by animals influences individual fitness, the abundance of local populations, and the distribution of species. Further, the degree to which individuals select particular resources can be altered by numerous factors including competition, predation, and both natural- and human-induced environmental change. Understanding the influence of such factors on the way animals use resources can guide species conservation and management in changing environments.

In this study, we investigated the effects of a prescribed fire on small-scale (microhabitat) resource selection, abundance, body condition, and movement pathways of a native Australian rodent, the bush rat (Rattus fuscipes). Using a before-after, control-impact design, we gathered data from 60 individuals fitted with spool and line tracking devices.

In unburnt forest, selection of resources by bush rats was positively related to rushes, logs and complex habitat, and negatively related to ferns and litter. Fire caused selection for spreading grass, rushes, and complex habitat to increase relative to an unburnt control location. At the burnt location after the fire, rats selected patches of unburnt vegetation, and no rats were caught at a trapping site where most of the understory had been burnt. The fire also reduced bush rat abundance and body condition and caused movement pathways to become more convoluted. After the fire, some individuals moved through burnt areas but the majority of movements occurred within unburnt patches.

The effects of fire on bush rat resource selection, movement, body condition, and abundance were likely driven by several linked factors including limited access to shelter and food due to the loss of understory vegetation and heightened levels of perceived predation risk.

Our findings suggest the influence of prescribed fire on small mammals will depend on the resulting mosaic of burnt and unburnt patches and how well this corresponds to the resource requirements of particular species.

Fordyce A, Hradsky BA, Ritchie EG, Di Stefano J (2015) Fire affects microhabitat selection, movement patterns, and body condition of an Australian rodent (Rattus fuscipes), Journal of Mammalogy PDF DOI