Forests fight back after bushfire infernos

By Matt Coughlan 21 January 2021
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An expert review of forest recovery science has found 70 per cent of plant species within eucalypt forests survive bushfires.

About 70 per cent of plant species in Australia’s eucalypt forests will survive bushfires through defence mechanisms developed over millions of years.

Five scientists from Griffith University and the Australian National University conducted an expert review of scientific research around forest fire recovery.

A key finding is plants’ use of recovery buds to store energy reserves that sprout new growth even when the entire tree has burned. Others drop huge volumes of seed when their canopy is burned.

Griffith University ecologist Patrick Norman said Australian forest typically recovers well after fire.

“Some plants survive through use of recovery buds which store energy reserves under their bark and in the ground and sprout new growth even when every leaf on the tree has been burned,” he said.

The review also found Australian fauna has evolved to recover after bushfires over the past 60 million years.

Native gliders, kookaburras, goannas, parrots and other animals use hollows in vital old eucalyptus trees which survive fire and recover quickly.

Researchers found the survival of many Australian animal species rely on unaffected patches of forest to live in while burnt forest recovers. Koalas are able to live off resprouting forest within months of a fire.

The review warns repeated hot fires could change the Australian bush, with trees that use recovery buds or drop seeds during a fire not maturing enough to develop these mechanisms.

Patrick said Australian forest had lived with fire for 60 million years.

“In most fires, a good deal of the big trees survive and remain great habitat and homes for our iconic animals,” he said.

“Dead trees are great habitat for our native animals and birds which need tree hollows for homes. Nearly all eucalyptus species can recover fully after fire even if all of their leaves were burned.”

He said mammals often survive fires in tree hollows, while other animals use unburnt creeks and gullies.

“For many of our iconic animals to survive after fire, we just need to leave the forest alone to recover,” Patrick said.