New book: Groom, P. K., and Lamont, B. B. (2015). Plant Life of Southwestern Australia. Adaptations for Survival. De Gruyter Open
Early explorers described Western Australia as ‘the most barren spot on the face of the earth’. In this book we learn that south-western Australia is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots – not despite but because of its harsh environment. Nutrient-poor soils, frequent droughts, and recurrent fires, together with adverse fauna interactions (e.g., strong-billed cockatoos, voracious kangaroos, and the lack of efficient pollinating bees and hummingbirds) have made this region the perfect evolutionary scenario for developing a plethora of plant adaptations and assembling an hyperdiverse flora. The authors nicely describe this scenario and offer an impressive wealth of knowledge on the natural history of the region in an attractive book with abundant tables and quality full-colour pictures. One of the strengths of the book is that it brings together both biotic and abiotic factors to explain biodiversity, something uncommon in most specialised books.
Overall this is a must-read book for Australian naturalists but will also be a key reference for international ecologists interested in how plants thrive and evolve in dry, nutrient-poor, fire-prone environments. The lessons learned from this region help us understand evolutionary pathways in other dry regions worldwide.
Traditionally, Australian aboriginal people set fires in their landscape to facilitate hunting. A recent study has compared the landscape and fire history from two regions, one where aboriginal people live in a traditional way and the other where fires are “natural” and caused by lightning . The results show that aborigines generate many small fires that are climate-independent, while lightning generates few large climate-driven fires. Anthropogenic fires are smaller even when climatic conditions cause huge fire in the lightning region. The authors suggest that this climate-buffering effects of aboriginal fires has likely been important for many species that benefit both from fine-grained mosaics of alternating resources and from enhanced protection from large catastrophic fires and the predators that hunt within them. This may explain the coincident decline of many small- to medium-sized mammals in the arid regions of Australia with the cessation of aboriginal hunting and burning. That is, the extinction of the aboriginal life style shifted fire regimes from small fires to large climate-driven fires, in a similar manner to the extinction of rural life styles in the Mediterranean Europe , and this shift promoted the extinciton of Australian mammals.
Fire Dreaming, by Malcolm Maloney Jagamarra [from www.aboriginalartcoop.com.au]
 Bird R.B., Codding B.F., Kauhanen P.G. & Bird D.W. (2012). Aboriginal hunting buffers climate-driven fire-size variability in Australia’s spinifex grasslands. PNAS, 109, 10287-10292. [pnas]
 Pausas J.G. & Fernández-Muñoz S. (2012). Fire regime changes in the Western Mediterranean Basin: from fuel-limited to drought-driven fire regime. Clim. Change, 110, 215-226. [doi | springer | pdf]