Sydney Morning Herald: Bringing back the devil

Tasmanian Devils could return to mainland Australia in the name of conservation. Image credit Duncan Rawlinson via Flickr

Tasmanian Devils could return to mainland Australia in the name of conservation. Image credit Duncan Rawlinson via Flickr

Reintroducing Tasmanian Devils to mainland Australia could solve a raft of conservation issues, and Wilson’s Promontory seems to be the ideal place to start.

Read more at the Sydney Morning Herald.

The Conversation: EcoCheck – Australia’s vast, majestic northern savannas need more care

Storm season in the Australian tropical savanna.

Storm season in the Australian tropical savanna.

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University) and Brett Murphy (Charles Darwin University).

Australia’s Top End, Kimberley and Cape York Peninsula evoke images of vast, awe-inspiring and ancient landscapes. Whether on the hunt for a prized barramundi, admiring some of the oldest rock art in the world, or pursuing a spectacular palm cockatoo along a pristine river, hundreds of thousands of people flock to this region each year. But how are our vast northern landscapes faring environmentally, and what challenges are on the horizon?

Above 17° south, bounded by a rough line from Cairns, Queensland, to Derby, Western Australia, are the high-rainfall (more than 1,000 mm a year) tropical savannas. These are the largest and most intact ecosystem of their kind on Earth. With the exception of some “smaller” pockets of rainforest (such as Queensland’s Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park), the vegetation of the region is dominated by mixed Eucalyptus forest and woodland with a grassy understorey.

There is a distinct monsoonal pattern of rainfall. Almost all of it falls during the wet season (December-March), followed by an extended dry (April-November). Wet-season rains drive abundant grass growth, which subsequently dries and fuels regular bushfires – making these landscapes among the most fire-prone on Earth. The dominant land tenures of the region are Indigenous, cattle grazing and conservation.

These savannas are home to a vast array of plant and animal species. The Kimberley supports at least 2,000 native plant species, while the Cape York Peninsula has some 3,000. More than 400 bird and 100 mammal species call the region home, along with invertebrates such as moths, butterflies, ants and termites, and spiders. Many of the latter are still undescribed and poorly studied.

Many species, such as the scaly-tailed possum, are endemic to the region, meaning they are found nowhere else.

The general lack of extensive habitat loss and modification, as compared to the broad-scale land clearing in southern Australia since European arrival, can give a false impression that the tropical savannas and their species are in good health. But research suggests otherwise, and considerable threats exist.

Fire-promoting weeds such as gamba grass, widely sown until very recently as fodder for cattle, are transforming habitats from diverse woodlands to burnt-out, low-diversity grasslands. Indeed, the fires themselves, which are considered too frequent and too late in the dry season at some locations, are now thought to be a primary driver of species loss.

Notable examples of wildlife in trouble include declines of many seed-eating birds, such as the spectacular Gouldian finch, and the catastrophic decline of native mammal species, most prominently in Australia’s largest national park, Kakadu.

It is likely some threats may also combine to make matters worse for certain species. For instance, frequent fires, intensive cattle grazing and the overabundance of introduced species such as feral donkeys and horses all combine to remove vegetation cover. This, together with the presence of feral cats, makes some native animals more vulnerable to predation.

New threats

This globally significant ecosystem, already under threat, is facing new challenges too. Proposals to use the region as a food bowl for Asia are associated with calls for the damming of waterways and land clearing for agriculture.

This is against a backdrop of climate change, which among other effects may bring less predictable wet seasons, more frequent and intense storms (cyclones) and fires, and hotter, longer dry seasons. Such changes are not only likely to harm some species, but could also make those much-touted agricultural goals far more difficult to achieve.

Great opportunities do exist in northern Australia, including carbon farming and expanded tourism enterprises. In some cases this might require difficult transitions, as already seen in parts of Cape York Peninsula, where often economically unviable cattle stations have become joint Indigenous and conservation-managed lands.

A key priority for the Great Northern Savannas should be to maintain people on country. It’s often thought that the solution to reducing environmental impacts is removing people from landscapes, but as people disappear so too does their stewardship and ability to manage and care for the land.

Importantly, and finally, we must also learn the historical lessons from southern Australia if we are to avoid making similar mistakes all over again, jeopardising the unique and precious values of the north.

The Conversation’s EcoCheck series takes the pulse of some of Australia’s most important ecosystems to find out if they’re in good health or on the wane.

Are you a researcher who studies an iconic Australian ecosystem and would like to give it an EcoCheck? Get in touch.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

The Conversation
The Conversation

The Conversation: The rise of citizen science is great news for our native wildlife

Thousands of citizen scientists are identifying animals from millions of images taken by automated cameras across Australia. Join in the fun at the Wildlife Spotter website. Image credit Shane Lin via Flickr

Thousands of citizen scientists are identifying animals from millions of images taken by automated cameras across Australia. Join them at the Wildlife Spotter website. Image credit Shane Lin via Flickr

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University) Jenny Davis (Charles Darwin University) Jenny Martin (University of Melbourne) and Sarah Maclagan (Deakin University)

Australia is renowned for its iconic wildlife. A bilby digging for food in the desert on a moonlit night, a dinosaur-like cassowary disappearing into the shadows of the rainforest, or a platypus diving for yabbies in a farm dam. But such images, though evocative, are rarely seen by most Australians.

As mammalogist Hedley Finlayson wrote in 1935:

The mammals of the area are so obscure in their ways of life and, except for a few species, so strictly nocturnal, as to be almost spectral.

For some species, our time to see them is rapidly running out. We know that unfortunately many native animals face considerable threats from habitat loss, introduced cats and foxes, and climate change, among others.

More than ever before, we need accurate and up-to-date information about where our wildlife persists and in what numbers, to help ensure their survival. But how do we achieve this in a place the sheer size of Australia, and with its often cryptic inhabitants?

Technology to the rescue

Fortunately, technology is coming to the rescue. Remotely triggered camera traps, for example, are revolutionising what scientists can learn about our furry, feathered, scaly, slippery and often elusive friends.

These motion-sensitive cameras can snap images of animals moving in the environment during both day and night. They enable researchers to keep an eye on their study sites 24 hours a day for months, or even years, at a time.

The only downside is that scientists can end up with millions of camera images to look at. Not all of these will even have an animal in the frame (plants moving in the wind can also trigger the cameras).

This is where everyday Australians can help: by becoming citizen scientists. In the the age of citizen science, increasing numbers of the public are generously giving their time to help scientists process these often enormous datasets and, in doing so, becoming scientists themselves.

What is citizen science?

Simply defined, citizen science is members of the public contributing to the collection and/or analysis of information for scientific purposes.

But, at its best, it’s much more than that: citizen science can empower individuals and communities, demystify science and create wonderful education opportunities. Examples of successful citizen science projects include Snapshot Serengeti, Birds in Backyards, School Of Ants, Redmap (which counts Australian sealife), DigiVol (analysing museum data) and Melbourne Water’s frog census.

Through the public’s efforts, we’ve learnt much more about the state of Africa’s mammals in the Serengeti, what types of ants and birds we share our cities and towns with, changes to the distribution of marine species, and the health of our waterways and their croaking inhabitants.

In a world where there is so much doom and gloom about the state of our environment, these projects are genuinely inspiring. Citizen science is helping science and conservation, reconnecting people with nature and sparking imaginations and passions in the process.

Australian wildlife in the spotlight

A fantastic example of this is Wildlife Spotter, which launched August 1 as part of National Science Week.

Researchers are asking for the public’s help to identify animals in over one million camera trap images. These images come from six regions (Tasmanian nature reserves, far north Queensland, south central Victoria, Northern Territory arid zone, and New South Wales coastal forests and mallee lands). Whether using their device on the couch, tram or at the pub, citizen scientists can transport themselves to remote Australian locations and help identify bettongs, devils, dingoes, quolls, bandicoots and more along the way.

By building up a detailed picture of what animals are living in the wild and our cities, and in what numbers, Wildlife Spotter will help answer important questions including:

  • How many endangered bettongs are left?
  • How well do native predators like quolls and devils compete with cats for food?
  • Just how common are common wombats?
  • How do endangered southern brown bandicoots manage to survive on Melbourne’s urban fringe in the presence of introduced foxes, cats and rats?
  • What animals visit desert waterholes in Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon)?
  • What predators are raiding the nests of the mighty mound-building malleefowl?

So, if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, love Australian wildlife and are keen to get involved with some important conservation-based science, why not check out Wildlife Spotter? Already, more than 22,000 people have identified over 650,000 individual animals. You too could join in the spotting and help protect our precious native wildlife.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article online, including reader comments.

The Conversation

The Conversation

Honours projects for 2017

Looking for an exciting honours project in ecology? I have four openings for 2017.

I also welcome other project ideas from students if they fit with my expertise and research priorities.

To find out more, please refer to the Deakin University website: Honours in Life and Environmental Sciences, or contact me.

Ecosystem ecology: understanding interactions between predators, prey, and fire in Victoria’s Big Desert-Wyperfeld region

Principal Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie

External Supervisors: Dr Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Tim Doherty (Deakin University), Tom Newsome (Deakin University)

Start date: February 2017

The Australian dingo, Canis lupus dingo. Image courtesy Angus McNab.

Dingoes and wild dogs are top predators in northwest Victoria’s national parks. Image credit: Angus McNab.

Northwest Victoria’s conservation reserves are key flagship areas home to high species diversity, including many species of conservation concern. Within this region, wild canids (dingoes/wild dogs), the top predators, are patchily distributed, being relatively common in the Big Desert-Wyperfeld region, but largely absent from the northern Murray Sunset and Hattah-Kulkyne national parks.

Wild canids, like other top predators worldwide, are known to be critical in influencing species throughout the ecosystems in which they occur. However, it remains to be determined what role(s) dingoes/wild dogs perform in Big Desert-Wyperfeld.

Specifically, do they regulate populations of overabundant herbivores (e.g. kangaroos) and/or invasive predators (e.g. cats and foxes), and does this in turn benefit native prey species (e.g. hopping mice)?

We will examine the role(s) of wild canids by surveying their distribution and abundance in the Big Desert-Wyperfeld region, and relating it to that of other key species of conservation and/or pest management concern.

This will be achieved through a combination of remote camera trapping, sand pads, scat counts and giving up density experiments.

Predators, prey and fire in Wilsons Promontory National Park

Principal Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie

External Supervisors: Dr Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Tim Doherty (Deakin University)

Start date: July 2017

Wilsons Prom is home to native mammals such as the Swamp Wallaby, Wallabia bicolor. Image by Toby Hudson [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Wilsons Prom is home to native mammals such as the Swamp Wallaby, Wallabia bicolor. Image credit Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons

Fire and predation are key processes that shape the structure and function of ecological communities. Despite their importance, few studies have examined how they may interact to affect the distribution, abundance and habitat preferences of species across different habitats.

This project will examine the effects of fire and predation on mammals in Wilsons Promontory National Park (which contains one-third of Victoria’s mammal species).

This work is supported by a Parks Victoria research partnership.

Fox, cat and fire interactions in the Grampians National Park

Principal Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie

External and co-supervisors: Dr Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Associate Professor John White (Deakin University), Tim Doherty (Deakin University)

Start date: February or July 2017

Foxes are invasive predators in the Grampians. Image credit: Dan Derrett via Flickr

Foxes are invasive predators in the Grampians. Image credit: Dan Derrett via Flickr

This project, a research partnership between Parks Victoria and Deakin University, will examine fox and cat distribution across the Grampians National Park. Specifically, it will aim to:

  1. Determine the most effective way to survey these invasive predators, using a combination of camera traps and scat counts.
  2. Examine the effect of fire on fox and cat habitat use.
  3. Examine how foxes and cats are associated with native mammals (as part of an ongoing, long-term study led by Associate Professor White).

The ecological role of eastern barred bandicoots in a newly established island population

Principal Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie

External and co-supervisors: Dr Duncan Sutherland (Phillip Island Nature Parks) and Dr Amy Coetsee (Zoos Victoria)

Start date: February or July 2017

Eastern barred bandicoots persist only in captivity or within fox-free nature reserves. Image credit JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons

Eastern barred bandicoots persist only in captivity or within fox-free nature reserves. Image credit JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons

Mainland eastern barred bandicoots (EBBs) are listed as extinct in the wild, persisting only in captivity or within fox-free fenced reserves.

Phillip Island Nature Parks, together with Zoos Victoria and the Eastern Barred Bandicoot Recovery Team, are conducting an experimental release of EBBs onto fox-free Churchill Island, adjacent to Phillip Island, which lies outside the known historic range of the species.

This project forms part of a broader effort to bring the EBBs back from the brink of extinction and off the threatened species list.

We are seeking an honours student for a project to experimentally determine the role of EBBs as ecological engineers and to continue a monitoring programme into the survival rates, reproductive success and habitat use of EBBs.

The project will involve soil and habitat assessments, live-trapping, radio-tracking and camera trapping.

The candidate will require a manual driver’s licence. Field accommodation on Phillip Island is available.

Crying wolf: limitations of predator–prey studies need not preclude their salient messages

Authors: Euan G Ritchie, Jannik Schultner, Dale G Nimmo, Joern Fischer, Jan Hanspach, Tobias Kuemmerle, Laura Kehoe and Ine Dorresteijn

Published in: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, volume 283, issue 1834 (July 2016)

A rapidly growing body of the literature reveals the important roles apex predators play in shaping the composition and functioning of ecological communities worldwide.

The principal effects of apex predators — namely herbivore and mesopredator population suppression — are often evident following their removal from environments, or their reintroduction, including rewilding initiatives. What remains less clear, however, is to what extent humans versus other apex predators affect ecosystems, how both interact across gradients of anthropogenic pressure and how such interactions can be affected by underlying bottom-up processes.

Such questions are critical to answer in the Anthropocene, where effective management of ecosystems and conservation of biodiversity requires a better understanding of how top-down and bottom-up processes vary according to anthropogenic influences…

Ritchie EG, Schultner J, Nimmo DG, Fischer J, Hanspach J, Kuemmerle T, Kehoe L, Dorresteijn I (2016) Crying wolf: limitations of predator–prey studies need not preclude their salient messages, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 283:1834 PDF DOI

Concordance in phylogeography and ecological niche modelling identify dispersal corridors for reptiles in arid Australia

Authors: Jane Melville, Margaret L Haines, Joshua Hale, Stephanie Chapple and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Journal of Biogeography (early access)

Abstract

Using the rock-specialist agamid Ctenophorus caudicinctus as a model, we test hypothesized biogeographical dispersal corridors for lizards in the Australian arid zone (across the western sand deserts), and assess how these dispersal routes have shaped phylogeographical structuring in arid and semi-arid Australia.

We sequenced a c. 1400 bp fragment of mtDNA (ND2) for 134 individuals of C. caudicinctus as well as a subset of each of the mtDNA clades for five nuclear loci (BDNF, BACH1, GAPD, NTF3, and PRLR). We used phylogenetic methods to assess biogeographical patterns within C. caudicinctus, including relaxed molecular clock analyses to estimate divergence times. Ecological niche modelling (Maxent) was employed to estimate the current distribution of suitable climatic envelopes for each lineage.

Phylogenetic analyses identified two deeply divergent mtDNA clades within C. caudicinctus – an eastern and western clade – separated by the Western Australian sand deserts. However, divergences pre-date the Pleistocene sand deserts. Phylogenetic analyses of the nuclear DNA data sets generally support major mtDNA clades, suggesting past connections between the western C. c. caudicinctus populations in far eastern Pilbara (EP) and the lineages to the east of the sand deserts. Ecological niche modelling supports the continued suitability of climatic conditions between the Central Ranges and the far EP for C. c. graafi.

Estimates of lineage ages provide evidence of divergence between eastern and western clades during the Miocene with subsequent secondary contact during the Pliocene. Our results suggest that this secondary contact occurred via dispersal between the Central Ranges and the far EP, rather than the more southerly Giles Corridor. These events precede the origins of the western sand deserts and divergence patterns instead appear associated with Miocene and Pliocene climate change.

Melville J, Haines ML, Hale J, Chapple S, Ritchie EG (2016) Concordance in phylogeography and ecological niche modelling identify dispersal corridors for reptiles in arid Australia. Journal of Biogeography PDF DOI