Written By: Angela Hu
With our world warming at the pace it is, wildfires are going to become more common. Can we regulate these fires by studying animal behaviour?
Claire Foster of the Australian National University recently published a review in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. In it, she examined how the activity of animal’s affects fire by suppressing or promoting it.
Animals That Suppress Fires
Grazing animals such as deer control plants that fire can easily spread through, such as grasses and brushy plants. For example, animals that eat leaves create gaps between branches, making it harder for fire to spread from one tree to the next. Elephants, deer, or even ant colonies that stamp out trails as they travel over them also create breaks between plants. Malleefowl birds gather dead leaves into piles to incubate their eggs, reducing leaf litter that can easily spread the fires.
Even insects affect the way wildfires spread! Termites create structures where many other animals choose to live around their mounds, making them less likely to burn. In addition, without invertebrates that eat leaf litter in eucalyptus forests, it halves the rate at which leaf litter decomposes. This leaves more fuel for fires.
Animals that Promote Fires
On the other hand, animals such as lace bugs can do the opposite. They eat leaves which cause an increase in the amount of a chemical that makes the leaves less edible. This means they are more likely to end up on the ground and degrade more slowly. Over time, this will make them build up as fuel. Grazers can also promote wildfires. They eat the nutritious plants and those that are left are usually drier and more flammable, promoting their growth. Finally, dead trees that insects such as pine-bark beetles kill burn more easily than living trees.
Ultimately, I think that understanding the activities of animals will help in controlling wildfires. By examining animal behaviour, we can see things like how likely wildfire is to spread or the size of it. Can we implement measures to increase populations of species that help control fires?