Community Service|Environment

Burning the Rainforest: How Fire Can Increase Biodiversity

Written by Shaun Swartz

This past summer was our second opportunity to work with our new service partner, Kuranda Envirocare, and we had an incredible experience getting our hands dirty doing conservation abroad in the Australian rainforest. Working with Kuranda Envirocare was a great chance for our group to get to know not only the landscape of tropical north Queensland but also to know the community working daily to protect the rainforest. During our most recent trip to Australia, our 8 person crew assembled each morning to assist our leader, Kathy, with tasks ranging from cleaning, organizing, and pruning seedling trees in the nursery to removing invasive weeds and replanting endemic tree species in damaged sections of rainforest. After working for a few hours each morning, we would stop for tea and biscuits, as is customary in Australia. As we sat and ate homemade passion fruit jam on scones baked by local volunteers, it was easy to understand why the community has come to love Envirocare.

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of our environmental conservation abroad, however, was assisting the Kuranda Envirocare team in germinating seeds we had collected from the forest floor. On our last morning of service at Envirocare, our crew set out to find seedpods suitable to be cleaned and roasted over a fire. While this may sound strange to burn the seedpods of endangered tree species, a multitude of plants in the rainforest relies, in fact, on fire-activation to begin the germination process. Fire activation is a form of serotiny, the process in which seeded-plants (spermatophytes) release their seeds after an environmental cue (I.e. fire or smoke). Seedpods covered in resin, for example, are unable to release their seeds without the heat of a direct flame, as the flames will melt the resin and open the seedpod. As such, fire activation treatments can increase germination rates by up to 15% in some species, according to scientists. Since EnviroCare’s work is an effort to expedite the growth process of endangered species and to replant damaged sections of the forest, burning the seedpods is simply replicating a natural process rather than waiting around for the next significant wildfire to occur.
Even though my background is in marine ecology, I found myself incredibly fascinated with the world of botany after our service days in Kuranda, going so far as to begin a small garden of my own at home. You never know what interests a service trip can spark (pun intended)!

Interested in learning more about how fire can shape forests? Check out this amazing video from Nature on PBS about the role wildfires play in the growth of California’s famed giant Sequoia trees.

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