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Currently, loss of habitat is the greatest threat to biodiversity, yet little is known about its effect on microscopic animal taxa, such as Tardigrada. One of the causes of habitat destruction is forest fire, both natural and anthropogenic. The latter is commonly used in agriculture to kill insect pests, as a soil preparation, or conservation to create habitat mosaics. In Portugal, 42% of fire frequency is anthropogenic. There is no consensus on the impact of fires on biodiversity, with studies pointing towards different conclusions. Different methods and target taxonomic study groups may partly explain this paradigm. This study is the first into possible effects of habitat destruction on tardigrade populations, in which we analysed the taxonomic and genetic variations of tardigrades from a fire affected location in a Portuguese natural park. Sampling was performed over a 10-year period, from 2000 to 2010. The location was affected by a small fire in 1998 and a big fire in 2003. A total of 11 species from nine separate genera was recorded, from which 19 cox1 haplotypes were identified. Our data suggest a negative effect of a forest fire on tardigrade populations. Taxonomic and genetic richness, as well as abundance show lower levels in the years after a fire, compared with the preceding years. Additionally, the population recovered visibly faster after the small fire than after the bigger one. This is consistent with larger fires destroying larger forest areas, leaving fewer animals at a farther distance available for re-colonisation. Most species found before the main fire are also found after it, indicating these tardigrades have a high recolonisation capability. However, only three of all recorded haplotypes were found both pre and post the main fire, which indicates genetic diversity loss as a direct consequence of fire. Therefore, we conclude that habitat destruction by means of forest fire has a detrimental effect on tardigrade biodiversity, and may have similar effects on other small animals.
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