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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Jun 26;109(26):10287-92. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1204585109. Epub 2012 Jun 11.

Aboriginal hunting buffers climate-driven fire-size variability in Australia's spinifex grasslands.

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  • 1Department of Anthropology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA. rbird@stanford.edu

Abstract

Across diverse ecosystems, greater climatic variability tends to increase wildfire size, particularly in Australia, where alternating wet-dry cycles increase vegetation growth, only to leave a dry overgrown landscape highly susceptible to fire spread. Aboriginal Australian hunting fires have been hypothesized to buffer such variability, mitigating mortality on small-mammal populations, which have suffered declines and extinctions in the arid zone coincident with Aboriginal depopulation. We test the hypothesis that the relationship between climate and fire size is buffered through the maintenance of an anthropogenic, fine-grained fire regime by comparing the effect of climatic variability on landscapes dominated by Martu Aboriginal hunting fires with those dominated by lightning fires. We show that Aboriginal fires are smaller, more tightly clustered, and remain small even when climate variation causes huge fires in the lightning region. As these effects likely benefit threatened small-mammal species, Aboriginal hunters should be considered trophic facilitators, and policies aimed at reducing the risk of large fires should promote land-management strategies consistent with Aboriginal burning regimes.

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