San Diego Fires Impacted Reptile and Amphibian Diversity

Amphibians dependent on vegetative cover, such as this Monterey salamander (Ensatina eschscholtzii), may be lost after large, repeated wildfires as landscapes shift to more open habitats. Image credit: Chris Brown/USGS.
Re-posted from the USGS Western Ecological Research Center (WERC Blog).

Original date published: March 16, 2011

When large wildfires loom in Southern California's chaparral and scrubland, critters like snakes, lizards and salamanders like this Monterey salamander (pictured at right) can seek temporary shelter in burrows and crevices.

But subsequent changes in the landscape and vegetative habitats may continue to impact these species -- preventing them from recolonizing their old home ranges. That's the conclusion of a study by USGS Western Ecological Research Center biologists on the 2003 Cedar Fire and Otay Fire in San Diego County. 

Biologist Carlton Rochester and colleagues from the WERC San Diego Field Station examined sites like the Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve and the Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve. By studying plant, reptile and amphibian species before and after the fires, the study found that certain landscapes suffered the most change.

In chaparral and coastal sage scrub habitats that experienced burns, a great deal of shrubs and tree cover were lost. As a result, the post-fire landscape there became more similar to open grasslands.

More open space and less leaf litter means less moist hideouts for the species adapted to them -- like the garden slender salamander and the southern alligator lizard. In the burned chaparral and scrublands, it took over two years for these and other species to be detected again and for the plant community to recover to pre-fire assemblages.

These observations give us some insight to the natural ebb and flow of wildlife and their landscapes -- after natural disasters, it takes time for plants and animals to recolonize and recover. But the observations also caution us to possible threats as wildfires become more unnaturally frequent and severe in Southern California. With less and less recovery time between repeated fires, some habitats may be permanently converted and lost -- along with the reptile and amphibian species that depend on them.

-- Ben Young Landis 

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