Reptile and amphibian responses to large-scale wildfires in Southern California


In 2003, southern California experienced several large fires that burned thousands of hectares of wildlife habitats and conserved lands. To investigate the effects of these fires on the reptile and
amphibian communities, we compared the results from prefire herpetofauna and vegetation sampling to two years of postfire sampling across 38 burned and 17 unburned plots. The sampling plots were spread over four vegetation types and four open space areas within San Diego County. Our capture results indicated that burned chaparral and coastal sage scrub plots lost herpetofaunal species diversity after the fires and displayed a significant shift in overall community structure. Shrub and tree cover at the burned plots, averaged across the second and third postfire years, had decreased by 53% in chaparral and 75% in coastal sage scrub. Additionally, postfire herpetofauna community structure at burned plots was more similar to that found in unburned grasslands. In grassland and woodland/riparian vegetation plots, where shrub and tree cover was not significantly affected by fires, we found no differences in the herpetofaunal species diversity or community composition. At the individual species level, Sceloporus occidentalis was the most abundant reptile in these areas both before and after the fires. We saw increases in the net capture rates for several lizard species, including Aspidoscelis tigris, Phrynosoma coronatum, and Uta stansburiana in burned chaparral plots and Aspidoscelis hyperythra and U. stansburiana in burned coastal sage scrub plots. The toad, Bufo boreas, was detected at significantly fewer burned plots in chaparral after the fires. Additionally, we documented decreases in the number of plots occupied by lizards (Elgaria multicarinata), salamanders(Batrachoseps major), and snakes (Coluber constrictor, Lampropeltis getula, Pituophis catenifer, andMasticophis lateralis) in coastal sage scrub and chaparral after the fires. We discuss the individual species results as they relate to such life-history traits as the susceptibility to initial mortality, the response to the altered postfire habitat, and shifts in the availability of potential prey. We foresee that a continued unnatural fire regime will result in a simplification of the southern California reptile and amphibian communities.

Publication details
Published Date: 2010
Outlet/Publisher: Journal of Herpetology 44:333-351
Media Format: .PDF

ARMI Organizational Units:
Southwest, Southern California - Biology
Fire; Species and their Ecology; Stressors
Place Names:
California; San Diego County, CA
amphibians; ecology; fire; habitat use; survival; wildlife habitat
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