Wildfires may seem like purely destructive forces, but a new study reminds us that they’re also generative forces.

“There’s a fair amount of biodiversity research on fire and plants,” says study lead author Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with UC Cooperative Extension, who is based at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management.

Research has shown that in ecosystems where fire is a natural and regular occurrence, there can be more species of plants—a greater “species richness“—due to a variety of factors, including fire-related adaptations. But, Moritz says, there hasn’t been nearly as much research in the way of animal biodiversity and fire.

“If you look at how fire operates across the planet, fire actually eats plant productivity,” Moritz says.

Productivity, which is a measure of how quickly biomass is generated within a given ecosystem, is also a driver of species richness at broad spatial scales. “When fires occur they can take a bite out of that bottom line,” he adds.

If wildfire regularly consumes some of the base of an ecosystem’s food chain, how does that ripple up to affect the biodiversity at higher levels?

For several years, Moritz and collaorators Enric Batllori from Universitat de Barcelona and Benjamin M. Bolker from McMaster University in Canada combed through global datasets on various factors such as plant biomass, fire observations, and species richness patterns.

While it might be natural to assume that plant biomass regularly consumed by fire would in turn lead to lower animal biodiversity, they found that for birds and mammals, fire is associated with increased diversity.

In fact, they say, the effect of wildfire on biodiversity in the case of birds rivals that of the ecosystem’s productivity. And in the case of mammals, fire’s influence was even stronger than that of productivity.

“It’s counterintuitive,” Moritz says. In the short term, fire’s consumption of plant material (also known as “net primary productivity”) could result in less food for the animals that consume plants and make it more difficult to survive and reproduce. But in the longer term, he says, there may be evolutionary effects that unleash adaptations and formations of new species.

Read the full article about wildfires and biodiversity by Sonia Fernandez at Futurity.