Response of reptile and amphibian communities to the reintroduction of fire in an oak/hickory forest
Fire can have diverse effects on ecosystems, including direct effects through injury and mortality and indirect effects through changes to available resources within the environment. Changes in vegetation structure such as a decrease in canopy cover or an increase in herbaceous cover from prescribed fire can increase availability of preferred microhabitats for some species while simultaneously reducing preferred conditions for others. We examined the responses of herpetofaunal communities to prescribed fires in an oak/hickory forest in western Kentucky. Prescribed fires were applied twice to a 1000-ha area one and four years prior to sampling, causing changes in vegetation structure. Herpetofaunal communities were sampled using drift fences, and vegetation attributes were sampled via transects in four burned and four unburned plots. Differences in reptile community structure correlated with variation in vegetation structure largely created by fires. Amphibian community structure differed on a yearly basis, indicating that sampled communities were likely influenced by environmental factors other than the burning. We found taxa-specific differences in abundances for Coluber constrictor, Diadophis punctatus, Sceloporus undulatus, Lithobates clamitans and snakes as a group, being more abundant in burned areas while Anaxyrus sp., Notophthalmus viridescens and Plethodon glutinosus were more abundant in unburned areas. Differences in amphibian taxa abundances may have been influenced by availability of aquatic breeding habitat and yearly weather variation. Our results suggest that the vegetation structure changes caused by prescribed fire can have indirect impacts on reptile abundances and community structure, while not significantly impacting amphibian communities.