The historical exclusion of fire from the longleaf pine–wiregrass (sandhills) ecosystem has resulted in a tremendous net loss of this important habitat. Prescribed fire is recognized as an essential tool for the maintenance of natural successional dynamics in this system, and its positive effects on native tree, shrub, and ground-layer plant communities are well documented. However, little is known about the influence of fire periodicity on many of the wildlife species occupying these forests. Our goal was to determine the relative degree to which a forest's structural characteristics and insect abundance and biomass influence the activity of different ecomorphological guilds of insectivorous bats and whether either of these factors was influenced by the periodicity of prescribed fire. We conducted a 2-year echolocation-monitoring study of bats in sandhills forests experiencing 3 categories of fire periodicity: 1–2 years, 3–5 years, and >8 years. We found significant differences in tree, shrub, and ground-layer characteristics among these burn-frequency categories, but few differences in abundance or biomass of most orders of nocturnal insects. However, the biomass of Lepidoptera was greatest at sites with the longest time between burns and was positively associated with fire-dependent deciduous tree and shrub densities. Bat activity below the canopy was significantly lower in the sites with >8-year burn frequencies than in either of the other treatments and was positively associated with height of canopy closure (a fire-dependent variable). Species-specific activity patterns confirmed ecomorphological predictions. Small-bodied species with low wing loadings and aspect ratios replaced larger, less-maneuverable species below the canopy at sites with >8-year burn frequencies. We provide support for the hypothesis that the structural characteristics of a habitat have primacy over prey availability in habitat choice by large and fast-flying species of bats. We suggest that frequency of fire is an important indirect determinant in structuring the communities of bats that forage in forests.
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