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The cleaning effect of fire: Lizards & parasites

Early humans and native cultures have used fire for clearing the ground from parasites and diseases, and some agricultural societies use fire to reduce livestock diseases [1,2]. In such cases, fire provide an ecosystem service to humans [2]. We recently asked to what extent this ‘cleaning effect‘ of fire is also observed in the wild, that is, whether wildfires may remove parasites and thus provide some benefits to wildlife [3]. To answer this question, we compared the presence of ecotoparasites (mites,Ophionyssus) in lizard populations of Psammodromus algirus living in recently burned areas with those in adjacent unburned areas, in eastern Spain. Our results suggest that many individuals of P. algirus survive fire (the smoke of the fire acts as a cue for quickly moving to safe microsites [4], e.g., crevices, under rocks, among roots; refugia [5]); and those that survived (and live in the postfire environment) have less ecotparasites (mites) than those living in unburned conditions. That is wildfires produce a ‘cleaning effect’ by reducing lizard ectoparasites in the postfire conditions. Fire, by disrupting the host-parasite interaction, provides a window of opportunity for lizards to avoid the negative effects of ectoparasites. We propose that wildfires likely fulfill a role in controlling vector-borne diseases and pathogens for other species, but this ecological effects have been largely overlooked.

Fig. 1. Probability of lizards infection by mites in relation to lizards’ size (snout-vent length) for recently burned areas (red) and for the corresponding paired unburned (blue). Lines are predicted values (and confidence intervals) from [3].
Fig. 2. Psammodromus algirus enjoying a clean (parasite-free) environment after a fire. Photo: Lola Álvarez-Ruiz
Fig. 3. Pictures of mites (genus Ophionyssus; in different stages) found under the scales of P. algirus, from [3]
Fig. 4. Art work on the paper by Josep Serra, 6/2021

References

[1] Pausas J.G. & Keeley J.E. 2009. A burning story: The role of fire in the history of life. BioScience 59: 593-601 [doi | OUP | pdf]

[2] Pausas J.G. & Keeley J.E. 2019. Wildfires as an ecosystem service. Front. Ecol. Environ. 17: 289-295. [doi | pdf]

[3] Álvarez-Ruiz L, Belliure J, Santos X., Pausas JG. 2021. Fire reduces parasite load in a Mediterranean lizard. Proceed. Royal Soc. B. [doi | pdfNew!

[4] Álvarez-Ruiz L, Belliure J, Pausas JG. 2021. Fire-driven behavioral response to smoke in a Mediterranean lizard. Behav. Ecol. [doi | oup | PDF]

[5] Pausas J.G. 2019. Generalized fire response strategies in plants and animals. Oikos 128: 147-153 [doi | pdf]

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