The effect of burning frequency on invertebrate and indigenous flowering forb diversity in a Drakensberg grassland ecosystem.
The KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg, South Africa, is predominantly a grassland ecosystem maintained by fire. The effect of the current burning regime on invertebrate and flowering forb diversity in this ecosystem is poorly understood. The overall aim ofthis study was to contribute towards the development of an effective burning regime for the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg that will conserve invertebrates and indigenous forbs, two major components of biodiversity. The objectives were to examine the effect of fire and fire frequency on flowering forb and invertebrate species diversity, to determine whether fire frequency, time since last burn or locality were influencing species composition, and to identify potential biodiversity indicators that reflect overall species richness for use in monitoring of invertebrates and forbs. Sampling took place in March, September and November of 2002 at Giants Castle Game Reserve. Invertebrates were sampled using sweep netting and targeted netting along transects, yellow pan traps and soil quadrats. Invertebrate taxa sampled were ants (Formicidae), butterflies (Lepidoptera), grasshoppers (Orthoptera), leafboppers (Cicadellidae), bees (Apoidea), bee flies (Bombyliidae), hover flies (Syrphidae), robber flies (Asilidae), spiders (Araneae), earthworms (Oligochaeta) and millipedes (Diploda). These were identified to species level with the assistance of taxon experts. Flowering forbs were sampled using five replicates of five by five metre quadrats randomly placed in each site. Overall flowering forb and invertebrate species diversity was higher in grasslands that were burnt for two consecutive years in 2001 and 2002 than in grasslands that were not burnt during those two years. Frequently (annual) and intermediately (biennial) burnt grasslands had significantly higher invertebrate and flowering forb diversity than infrequently (five years without burning) burnt grasslands. This, together with the fact that grasslands burnt during the year of sampling had higher species richness than grasslands burnt two and five years previously suggests that invertebrates and forbs are generally resilient to fire and many forb species appear to be stimulated by fire. However, each burn frequency had its own suite of unique flowering forb and invertebrate species. Invertebrate communities were influenced mostly by locality and the length of time past since the last fire and flowering forb communities were influenced mostly by the length oftime past since the last fire. Fire frequency had the least influence on both invertebrate and forb communities. Ecological succession occurred after each fire in the invertebrate communities but forb communities appear to need more than five years without fire for ecological succession to occur. The findings of this study therefore suggest that using a combination of three fire frequencies would result in patches of grassland in various stages of ecological succession, and would conserve species unique to each burning frequency, and would therefore conserve maximum diversity. Flowering forb species richness and certain invertebrate taxa (ants, leafboppers, spiders and bees) have the potential to act as indicators of overall invertebrate species richness for use in monitoring programmes.
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