Habitat refuges

About the research

The bushfires that occurred in Victoria in February 2009 provided a dramatic illustration of how fire can shape landscapes. The Faunal Refuges Project is investigating the effects of fire history on fauna and vegetation within the area affected by the Kilmore-Murrindindi fires. The major focus of the project is on refuges, i.e. areas that remained unburnt within the fire boundary. We are examining how these areas function as sites in which animals and plants can persist through a fire and its immediate aftermath and subsequently recolonise the post-fire landscape.

The Faunal Refuges Project is a collaboration between La Trobe University's Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution and Deakin University's School of Life and Biological Sciences. The project leaders are Professor Mike Clarke and Professor Andrew Bennett. The research team also includes a Project Officer (Dr Steve Leonard) four PhD and several Honours students.

The project is funded by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. The project aims to provide sound ecological underpinnings for planned burning in Victoria.

Aims and research questions

A key issue we are investigating is whether prescribed burning increases retention of biodiversity within landscapes affected by wildfire. It is anticipated that the results of the project will help refine the Department of Sustainability and Environment's Landscape Mosaic Burning strategy.

Our main research questions are:

1.To what extent does prescribed burning (or its natural equivalent) moderate the impact on fauna of a large wildfire event through the creation of unburnt, or less severely burnt, refuges?

2. How important is the extent of permanent (natural) and transient (fuel reduced) refuge areas in maintaining the diversity of organisms in the landscape and how does it differ between taxonomic groups?


We are interested in processes that occur at large spatial and temporal scales. Individual fires occur at the landscape scale, while fire regimes and the responses of the biota to them play out over decades or even centuries.

At these scales experimental manipulation of ecosystems is difficult, so we have chosen to use a space for time substitution approach for the project. We are working in sites that vary with respect to three key predictor variables: fire history (recently burnt vs long unburnt), severity of the 2009 fire and patch size. A number of additional environmental and landscape variables are also recorded for each site.

All sites are located within or in proximity to the perimeter of the 2009 wildfires. This provides a direct test of the role of planned burns and refuge areas in ameliorating the impacts of wildfire on the biota. Sites are located on both the drier ridges and slopes of the Herb rich foothill forest EVC and the associated moist gullies of the Damp Forest EVC.

Studies within the project

Within the overall project framework studies are being carried out or have been completed on:

  • mammals
  • birds
  • aquatic invertebrates
  • terrestrial invertebrates
  • vegetation and flora
  • invasive fauna
  • bryophytes
  • faunal ecosystem engineering.


We have produced a booklet summarising our findings to date. 


  • Dr Heloise Gibb - La Trobe University
  • Dr Euan Ritchie - Deakin University
  • Dr Nick Murphy - La Trobe University

Want to work with us?

There is scope for further studies (at honours or PhD level) to be incorporated into the project. If this interests you please contact Dr Steve Leonard.


Bassett, M., Chia, E.K.,Leonard, S.W.J., Nimmo, D.G., Holland, G.J., Ritchie, E.G., Clarke, M.F., Bennett, A.F. (2015) The effects of topographic variation and the fire regime on coarse woody debris: Insights from a large wildfire. Forest Ecology and Management, 340 126-134. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2014.12.028

Nugent, D.T.,Leonard, S.W.J., Clarke, M.F. (2014) Interactions between the superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) and fire in south-eastern Australia. Wildlife Research41 203-211.

Leonard, S. W. J., Bennett, A. F., & Clarke, M. F. (2014). Determinants of the occurrence of unburnt forest patches: Potential biotic refuges within a large, intense wildfire in south-eastern Australia. Forest Ecology and Management, 314, 85-93. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2013.11.036

Robinson, N. M., Leonard, S. W. J., Bennett, A. F., & Clarke, M. F. (2014). Refuges for birds in fire-prone landscapes: The influence of fire severity and fire history on the distribution of forest birds. Forest Ecology and Management, 318, 110-121. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2014.01.008

Robinson, N. M., Leonard, S. W. J., Ritchie, E. G., Bassett, M., Chia, E. K., Buckingham, S., Gibb, H., Bennett, A.F.,& Clarke, M. F. (2013). Refuges for fauna in fire-prone landscapes: Their ecological function and importance. Journal of Applied Ecology, 50, 1321-1329. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.12153/abstract