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Aboriginal hunting and burning increase Australia's desert biodiversity, Stanford researchers find
Date:5/3/2010

nheritance is the knowledge of when and where to light smoldering brush fires. Martu never start blazes without knowing every nook and cranny of a territory and often forgo campfires when traveling through foreign estates, he said.

"You never burn unless you're with someone who has all of that knowledge about that estate," he added. "If your fire were to threaten one of those totemic spots where they keep all their religious paraphernalia associated with these rituals, it's technically punishable by death."

The middle-aged and elderly women who typically hunt for goanna can spot the animal's burrows and tracks better in burn scars than in thick spinifex grass, Rebecca Bird explained. Goanna hunters burn desert in about 55-acre chunks, making their hunting grounds a patchwork quilt of recently burnt earth and recovering vegetation. These scars are much smaller than those left by lightning wildfires, which char an average of 2,000 acres.

Burning back grasses and other fire-prone plants encourages the growth of a diverse range of annual vegetation, she said. The variable turf of Martu hunting grounds allows small mammals to find plenty of places to hide from predators, she added, while areas free of human burning lack this patchwork quality and are home to fewer plants and animals.

"The thing that anthropogenic fire does is rearrange the landscape variation into smaller and smaller bits," said project collaborator James Holland Jones, an assistant professor of anthropology and a Woods Institute center fellow. "It happens to be the scale that animals, plants and people work at."

While Martu families believe strongly in preserving their lands and know all the animals and plants that benefit from burning, their fires are, first and foremost, tools for nabbing goanna meat.

"Martu don't think of it as, 'We apply fire in order to promote the future long-term biodiversity,'" Douglas Bird said. "They can talk abou
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Contact: Mark Shwartz
mshwartz@stanford.edu
650-723-9296
Stanford University
Source:Eurekalert

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