Indigenous fire practice protecting the Gibson Desert's biodiversity

October 10, 2018, University of Queensland
Indigenous fire practice protecting the Gibson Desert's biodiversity
Desert myrtle shrubland in Australia's Gibson Desert. Credit: University of Queensland

Traditional Indigenous burning practices are protecting plant biodiversity in Australia's Gibson Desert, according to University of Queensland research.

The study analysed how environments dominated by flammable spinifex grasses and fire-sensitive myrtle shrubs reacted to wildfires, and to the low-intensity burning practices of the Pintupi people.

UQ School of Agriculture and Food Sciences researcher Dr Boyd Wright was originally doing field work for a book about edible and medicinal plants used by Indigenous people of Kiwirrkurra, on the eastern edge of the Gibson Desert.

"While on these field trips I realised that the spinifex and desert myrtle environments resembled what we in the ecology community call alternative stable state systems," Dr Wright said.

"Alternative stable state theory suggests that ecosystems can exist under multiple 'states', and that state shifting – where one state transitions to another – is usually driven by a disturbance, or frequent disturbances."

Dr Wright said when such shifts happen, the entire composition of an ecological community can change.

"Rainforests can transform into savannas or shrublands into grasslands, but to my knowledge there were no confirmed examples of alternative stable state systems in arid zones," he said.

Indigenous fire practice protecting the Gibson Desert's biodiversity
Fire-sensitive desert myrtle seedling after fire. Credit: University of Queensland
"My research suggests that these systems do exist in the Gibson Desert, and that Indigenous fire practices are holding back some of these transformations, retaining critical species."

The Pintupi people have traditionally used low-intensity fires for hunting and land management, most recently to hunt for feral cats by opening up country and improving tracking efficiency.

"Repeated high-intensity summer wildfires have the capacity to burn into the areas where the desert myrtle shrubs grow, completely wiping them out," Dr Wright said.

"But the low-intensity traditional burning of the Pintupi makes it less likely that fires from the spinifex grasslands will penetrate into the shrublands, protecting these landscapes.

"The traditional burning practice of the Pintupi is not only saving the bilby from , but is also helping to conserve Australia's unique flora."

The study is published in Oecologia.

Explore further: Desert cat hunters cut wildlife protection costs

More information: Boyd R. Wright. Evidence that shrublands and hummock grasslands are fire-mediated alternative stable states in the Australian Gibson Desert, Oecologia (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s00442-018-4215-2

Related Stories

Desert cat hunters cut wildlife protection costs

October 14, 2015

WA nature lovers daunted by the cost of electric exclusion fencing and other methods of protecting threatened species from predators may be interested to know of another, perhaps cheaper, method of combating pests practised ...

Bush burning helps Gouldian finches thrive

June 20, 2016

Improved bush burning methods by Indigenous Rangers in the East Kimberley have been hailed for the resurgence of Gouldian finches (Erythrura gouldiae) in the region.

Recommended for you

Meteorite source in asteroid belt not a single debris field

February 17, 2019

A new study published online in Meteoritics and Planetary Science finds that our most common meteorites, those known as L chondrites, come from at least two different debris fields in the asteroid belt. The belt contains ...

Diagnosing 'art acne' in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings

February 17, 2019

Even Georgia O'Keeffe noticed the pin-sized blisters bubbling on the surface of her paintings. For decades, conservationists and scholars assumed these tiny protrusions were grains of sand, kicked up from the New Mexico desert ...

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.