In the last two centuries, European fire suppression practices have produced increases in vegetation density and canopy cover in many landscapes. Potentially, increases in canopy cover could negatively affect small populations of nocturnal reptiles that use sun-exposed shelters for diurnal thermoregulation. We hypothesized that vegetation encroachment over rock outcrops might partly explain the recent decline of Australia's most endangered snake, the Broad-headed Snake Hoplocephalus bungaroides. To test this hypothesis, we carried out a field study in Morton National Park, southeastern Australia. We removed overhanging vegetation from above shaded rocks and compared their subsequent usage by reptiles to control (shaded) rocks. In spring, one year after canopy removal, experimental rocks were 10.3 C hotter than control rocks and were used as diurnal retreat sites by three species of reptiles, including the endangered Broad-headed Snake and its prey (Velvet Gecko, Oedura lesueurii). By contrast, no reptiles used control rocks as diurnal retreat sites. Our results show that modest canopy removal (15% increase in canopy openness) can restore habitat quality for nocturnal reptiles. Future studies are needed to examine whether controlled burns can maintain an open canopy above sandstone rock outcrops. However, until effective fire management measures are in place, sapling removal from overgrown rock outcrops could help to protect small populations of endangered reptiles.
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Vol. 2005 • No. 4