Fire-induced forest transition to derived savannas: Cascading effects on ant communities
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Changes in land-use and climate increase the flammability of forests across southeast Amazonia, potentially driving abrupt fire-mediated transitions to derived savannas – grass-dominated degraded forests with scattered trees. However, the extent to which the forest fauna undergoes a parallel process remains poorly understood. Here we test the hypothesis that the process of fire-driven forest shifts towards derived savannas has congruent cascading effects on ant communities by causing declines in forest specialists and an influx of open-habitat taxa. In 2013 we collected ants using subterranean, epigaeic and arboreal pitfall traps in three adjacent 50-ha plots: an unburnt control and two treatment plots that were burnt either triennially or annually from 2004 to 2010. Frequent fire was associated with a marked decline of specialist forest species (almost 50%), and an influx of open-habitat taxa that were absent from the unburnt plot. The effects were particularly pronounced for epigaeic ants: their abundance, biomass, species richness and species composition were impacted by fires, and this was the main stratum occupied by the open-habitat species. Previous studies have shown that a similar conversion is not triggered by single fires, and they therefore require recurrent fires. Our results provide experimental evidence that the process of tropical forest conversion towards derived savannas caused by repeated burning is a broad one that affects not only plants, but involves parallel compositional shifts of animal communities. The prevention of recurrent fires is a priority challenge for avoiding widespread biotic conversion of tropical forests to derived savannas.