, Volume 191, Issue 1, pp 165–175 | Cite as

Mechanisms behind persistence of a fire-sensitive alternative stable state system in the Gibson Desert, Western Australia

  • Boyd R. WrightEmail author
  • David E. Albrecht
  • Jennifer L. Silcock
  • John Hunter
  • Roderick J. Fensham
Community ecology – original research


Alternative vegetation types that switch from one to another under contrasting fire regimes are termed fire-mediated alternative stable states (FMASS). Typically, pyrophylic communities (i.e., vegetation assemblages favored by burning) dominate under high frequencies or intensities of fire. Conversely, fire-sensitive (pyrophobic) vegetation types persist under long fire-free conditions. As the persistence traits of plants of FMASS systems are generally poorly researched, threshold levels of pyric disturbance that trigger ‘state-switching’ are often unknown. Dense thickets of the obligate-seeder shrub waputi (Aluta maisonneuvei ssp. maisonneuvei [Myrtaceae]) form fire-retarding woody islands within highly flammable spinifex (Triodia spp.) grasslands in arid Australia. To examine the tolerance of Aluta thickets to burning, we investigated: (1) the influence of post-fire rainfall and fire severity on recruitment (a field study); (2) soil seedbank densities (a field study); and (3) fire-related dormancy cues in seeds (a germination trial). We found a positive relationship between recruitment and post-fire rainfall volume, and much higher mean recruitment at sites with high- (5.9 seedlings/m2) than low-severity-burnt (2.2 seedlings/m2) and unburnt shrubs (0.03 seedlings/m2). Post-fire regeneration was mediated by dense soil-borne seedbanks, and the germination trial indicated that smoke promoted germination. Although Aluta shrubs are invariably fire-killed, high-severity fires are unlikely to lead to state shifts from shrubland to grassland because of the ability of mature stands to regenerate from dense, fire-cued seedbanks. Nevertheless, given that Aluta seedlings are exceptionally slow-growing, post-fire droughts combined with fire-return intervals less than the Aluta primary juvenile period of c. 5 years could drive conversion from Aluta- to Triodia-dominated vegetation.


Arid zone Alternative stable states Ecotone Fire ecology Obligate seeder 



Josephine Nangala is thanked for allowing the use of facilities at Nyinmi outstation during field work. Wendeline Kroon cooked delicious and nutritious meals, whilst at Nyinmi. Josephine Nangala, Jimmy Brown, Mantuwa Nangala, Yalti Napangardi, Yukultji Napangardi, and other traditional owners of the Kiwirrkurra IPA are thanked for giving permission to conduct research in the KIPA. Kate Crossing from Central Desert Native Title Services is thanked for facilitating access to field sites. Staff of the Australian National Botanic Gardens National Seed Bank are thanked for providing access to laboratory facilities and assistance with procuring images and materials. Tom North assisted with setting up and counting germinants during a pilot germination trial. Fanny Karouta-Manasse (seedbank volunteer) also provided assistance with the setup & monitoring of the pilot germination trial. Lachlan Henderson assisted with collection of flowering data provided in the online supplementary material. Brian Hawkins and Joe Harding provided the use of a vehicle to BRW and DEA for field work during the 2015 Bush Blitz scientific expedition to the IPA. Robert Whyte and Wendeline Kroon provided photos for Fig. 1. Jeremy Bruhl is thanked for helpful intellectual discussion and for providing access to laboratory facilities at the Botany Department at the University of New England.

Author contribution statement

BRW and DEA conceived and designed the experiments. BRW, DEA, JLS, and RJF performed the experiments. BRW analyzed the data. BRW, DEA, JLS, JH, and RJF wrote the manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

442_2019_4474_MOESM1_ESM.docx (24 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 24 kb)
442_2019_4474_MOESM2_ESM.docx (15 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 15 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Environmental and Rural ScienceThe University of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia
  2. 2.Department of Land Resource ManagementThe Northern Territory HerbariumAlice SpringsAustralia
  3. 3.School of Agriculture and Food ScienceUniversity of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia
  4. 4.Australian National HerbariumCentre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, CSIROCanberraAustralia
  5. 5.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia
  6. 6.Queensland HerbariumBrisbaneAustralia

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