Category Archives: Media

Fabulous Fuzzballs – A collection of mammal tales tails

Mammals are extraordinarily successful animals, occupying Earth’s skies, seas and land, but many species also face significant threats and uncertain futures.

In this 35-minute presentation, I share stories about dingoes, bandicoots, tree kangaroos, bears and other mammals, highlighting their ecological and cultural importance, and how science is aiding their conservation.

The Conversation: Research reveals shocking detail on how Australia’s environmental scientists are being silenced

By Don Driscoll (Deakin University),Bob Pressey (James Cook University), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), and Noel D Preece (James Cook University).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ecologists and conservation experts in government, industry and universities are routinely constrained in communicating scientific evidence on threatened species, mining, logging and other threats to the environment, our new research has found.

Our study, just published, shows how important scientific information about environmental threats often does not reach the public or decision-makers, including government ministers.

In some cases, scientists self-censor information for fear of damaging their careers, losing funding or being misrepresented in the media. In others, senior managers or ministers’ officers prevented researchers from speaking truthfully on scientific matters.

This information blackout, termed “science suppression”, can hide environmentally damaging practices and policies from public scrutiny. The practice is detrimental to both nature and democracy.

Code of silence

Our online survey ran from October 25, 2018, to February 11, 2019. Through advertising and other means, we targeted Australian ecologists, conservation scientists, conservation policy makers and environmental consultants. This included academics, government employees and scientists working for industry such as consultants and non-government organisations.

Some 220 people responded to the survey, comprising:

  • 88 working in universities
  • 79 working in local, state or federal government
  • 47 working in industry, such as environmental consulting and environmental NGOs
  • 6 who could not be classified.

In a series of multiple-choice and open-ended questions, we asked respondents about the prevalence and consequences of suppressing science communication.

About half (52%) of government respondents, 38% from industry and 9% from universities had been prohibited from communicating scientific information.

Communications via traditional (40%) and social (25%) media were most commonly prohibited across all workplaces. There were also instances of internal communications (15%), conference presentations (11%) and journal papers (5%) being prohibited.

‘Ministers are not receiving full information’

Some 75% of respondents reported having refrained from making a contribution to public discussion when given the opportunity – most commonly in traditional media or social media. A small number of respondents self-censored conference presentations (9%) and peer-reviewed papers (7%).

Factors constraining commentary from government respondents included senior management (82%), workplace policy (72%), a minister’s office (63%) and middle management (62%).

Fear of barriers to advancement (49%) and concern about media misrepresentation (49%) also discouraged public communication by government respondents.

Almost 60% of government respondents and 36% of industry respondents reported unduly modified internal communications.

One government respondent said:

Due to ‘risk management’ in the public sector […] ministers are not receiving full information and advice and/or this is being ‘massaged’ by advisors (sic).

University respondents, more than other workplaces, avoided public commentary out of fear of how they would be represented by the media (76%), fear of being drawn beyond their expertise (73%), stress (55%), fear that funding might be affected (53%) and uncertainty about their area of expertise (52%).

One university respondent said:

I proposed an article in The Conversation about the impacts of mining […] The uni I worked at didn’t like the idea as they received funding from (the mining company).

Critical conservation issues suppressed

Information suppression was most common on the issue of threatened species. Around half of industry and government respondents, and 28% of university respondents, said their commentary on the topic was constrained.

Government respondents also reported being constrained in commenting on logging and climate change.

One government respondent said:

We are often forbidden (from) talking about the true impacts of, say, a threatening process […] especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat […] In this way the public often remains ‘in the dark’ about the true state and trends of many species.

University respondents were most commonly constrained in talking about feral animals. A university respondent said:

By being blocked from reporting on the dodgy dealings of my university with regards to my research and its outcomes I feel like I’m not doing my job properly. The university actively avoids any mention of my study species or project due to vested financial interests in some key habitat.

Industry respondents, more than those from other sectors, were constrained in commenting on the impacts of mining, urban development and native vegetation clearing. One industry respondent said:

A project […] clearly had unacceptable impacts on a critically endangered species […] the approvals process ignored these impacts […] Not being able to speak out meant that no one in the process was willing or able to advocate for conservation or make the public aware of the problem.

The system is broken

Of those respondents who had communicated information publicly, 42% had been harassed or criticised for doing so. Of those, 83% believed the harassers were motivated by political or economic interests.

Some 77 respondents answered a question on whether they had suffered personal consequences as a result of suppressing information. Of these, 18% said they had suffered mental health effects. And 21% reported increased job insecurity, damage to their career, job loss, or had left the field.

One respondent said:

I declared the (action) unsafe to proceed. I was overruled and properties and assets were impacted. I was told to be silent or never have a job again.

Another said:

As a consultant working for companies that damage the environment, you have to believe you are having a positive impact, but after years of observing how broken the system is, not being legally able to speak out becomes harder to deal with.

Change is needed

We acknowledge that we receive grants involving contracts that restrict our academic freedom. And some of us self-censor to avoid risks to grants from government, resulting in personal moral conflict and a less informed public. When starting this research project, one of our colleagues declined to contribute for fear of losing funding and risking employment.

But Australia faces many complex and demanding environmental problems. It’s essential that scientists are free to communicate their knowledge on these issues.

Public servant codes of conduct should be revised to allow government scientists to speak freely about their research in both a public and private capacity. And government scientists and other staff should report to new, independent state and federal environment authorities, to minimise political and industry interference.

A free flow of information ensures government policy is backed by the best science. Conservation dollars would be more wisely invested, costly mistakes avoided and interventions more effectively targeted.

And importantly, it would help ensure the public is properly informed – a fundamental tenet of a flourishing democracy.
The Conversation

The Conversation: Predators, prey and moonlight singing: how phases of the Moon affect native wildlife

Image credits: Wes Mountain / The Conversation

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Courtney Marneweck (Clemson University), and Grant Linley (Charles Sturt University).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humans have long been inspired and transfixed by the Moon, and as we’re discovering, moonlight can also change the behaviour of Australian wildlife.

A collection of recently published research has illuminated how certain behaviours of animals – including potoroos, wallabies and quolls – change with variation in ambient light, phases of the Moon and cloud cover.

One study found small mammals were more active on cloudy nights. Another found variation in moonlight led to differing amounts of species captured in non-lethal traps. And a study on willie wagtails found males just love singing on a full moon.

These findings are interesting from a natural history perspective. But they’ll also help ecologists and conservation scientists better locate and study nocturnal animals, and learn how artificial light pollution is likely changing where animals can live and how they behave.

Moonlit predator-prey games of hide and seek

Most of Australia’s mammals are nocturnal, and some smaller species are thought to use the cover of darkness to avoid the attention of hungry predators. However, there’s much we don’t know about such relationships, especially because it can be difficult to study these interactions in the wild.

In the relatively diverse mammal community at Mt Rothwell, Victoria, we examined how variation in ambient light affected species’ activity, and how this might influence species interactions. Mt Rothwell is a fenced conservation reserve free of feral cats and foxes, and with minimal light pollution.

Over two years, we surveyed the responses of predator and prey species to different light levels from full, half and new moon phases.

Potential prey species in our study included eastern barred and southern brown bandicoots, long-nosed potoroos, brushtailed rock-wallabies, and brushtail and common ringtail possums. Eastern and spotted-tailed quolls are their potential predators.

Just as we predicted, we found that while there does appear to be relationships between cloud cover, Moon phase and mammal activity, these interactions depend on the sizes and types of mammals involved.

Both predators and prey generally increased their activity in darker conditions.
Smaller, prey species increased their activity when cloud cover was higher, and predators increased their activity during the half and new moon phases.

This suggests their deadly game of hide and seek might intensify on darker nights. And prey might have to trade off foraging time to reduce their chances of becoming the evening meal.

What happens in the wild?

It’s important to acknowledge that studies in sanctuaries such as Mt Rothwell might not always reflect well what goes on in the wild, including in areas where introduced predators, such as feral cats and red foxes, are found.

Another recent study, this time of small mammals in the wilds of Victoria’s Mallee region, sheds further light on the situation. The authors tested if variation in weather and Moon phase affected the numbers of five small mammal species – Bolam’s mouse, common dunnart, house mouse, southern ningaui, and western pygmy possum – captured in pitfall traps.

Pitfall traps are long fences small animals can’t climb over or through, so follow along the side until they fall into a bucket dug in the ground. Ecologists typically use these traps to capture and measure animals and then return them to the wild, unharmed.

At more than 260 sites and over more than 50,000 trap nights, they found wind speed, temperature and moonlight influenced which species were caught and in what numbers.

For example, captures of a small native rodent, Bolam’s mouse, and carnivorous marsupial, southern ningaui, decreased with more moonlight, whereas captures of pygmy possums were higher with more moonlight.

Moonlight songbird serenades

Research from last month has shown even species normally active by day may change their behaviour and activity by night.

It’s not uncommon to hear bird song by night, including the quintessentially Aussie warbling of magpies. Using bioacoustic recorders and song detection software, these researchers show the willie wagtail – another of Australia’s most recogisable and loved birds – is also a nighttime singer, particularly during the breeding season.

While both male and female wagtails sing by day, it is the males that are most vocal by night. And it seems the males aren’t afraid of a little stage-lighting either, singing more with increasing moonlight, with performances peaking during full moons.

This work provides insight into the importance and potential role of nocturnal song for birds, such as mate attraction or territory defence, and helps us to better understand these behaviours more generally.

Moonlight affects wildlife conservation

These studies, and others, can help inform wildlife conservation, as practically speaking, ecological surveys must consider the relative brightness of nights during which work occurred.

Depending on when and where we venture out to collect information about species, and what methods we use (camera traps, spotlighting, and non-lethal trapping) we might have higher or lower chances of detecting certain species. And this might affect our insights into species and ecosystems, and how we manage them.

As dark skies become rarer in many places around the world, it also begs a big question. To what extent is all the artificial light pollution in our cities and peri-urban areas affecting wildlife and ecosystems?

Pipistrelle bats, for example, will be roughly half as active around well-lit bridges than unlit bridges. They’ll also keep further away from well-lit bridges, and fly faster when near them.

This means artificial light might reduce the amount and connectivity of habitat available to some bat species in urban areas. This, in turn could affect their populations.

Research is underway around the world, examining the conservation significance of such issues in more detail, but it’s another timely reminder of the profound ways in which we influence the environments we share with other species.

The authors  acknowledge Yvette Pauligk, who contributed to our published work at Mt Rothwell, and that the traditional custodians of this land are the Wathaurong people of the Kulin nation.
The Conversation

 

Aussie English: Australia’s wildlife extinction crisis

In this podcast with Pete Smissen for Aussie English, I talk about a wide range of topics including:

  • how I became a wildlife ecologist
  • why large predators died out in Australia
  • how Australia’s past and present ecology differs
  • the impact of feral species in Australia including cats, foxes, and rabbits
  • why bushfires are so bad for Australia wildlife
  • the Australian wildlife extinction crisis
  • and more!

The Conversation: One little bandicoot can dig up an elephant’s worth of soil a year – and our ecosystem loves it

Eastern Barred Bandicoot, Perameles gunnii. Image credit Museum Victoria Catching The Eye via Flickr

By Euan Ritchie, (Deakin University), Amy Coetsee (University of Melbourne), Anthony Rendall  (Deakin University), Duncan Sutherland (University of Melbourne), and Leonie Valentine (University of Western Australia).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

On Churchill Island, southeast of Melbourne, small cone-shaped, shallow holes (digs) puncture the grass. They’re widespread, and reveal moist soil below the surface. A soil heap at the entrance of a dig is a sign it was made recently.

Older digs are filled with leaves, grass, spiders, beetles and other invertebrates. They are made by hungry eastern barred bandicoots – small, roughly rabbit-sized digging marsupials – looking for a juicy worm or grub.

It turns out these bandicoot digs are far from just environmental curiosities – they can improve the properties and health of soils, and even reduce fire risk.

But eastern barred bandicoots are under threat from introduced predators like foxes and cats. In fact, they’re considered extinct in the wild on mainland Australia, so conservation biologists are releasing them on fox-free islands to help establish new populations and ensure the species is conserved long-term.

Our recent research on Churchill Island put a number on just how much the eastern barred bandicoot digs – and the results were staggering, showing how important they are for the ecosystem. But more on that later.

Why you should dig marsupial diggers

Digging mammals – such as bettongs, potoroos, bilbies and bandicoots – were once abundant and widespread across Australia, turning over large amounts of soil every night with their strong front legs as they dig for food or create burrows for shelter.

Their digs improve soil health, increase soil moisture and nutrient content, and decrease soil compaction and erosion. Digs also provide habitat for invertebrates and improve seed germination.

What’s more, by digging fuel loads (dry, flammable vegetation, such as leaves) into the soil, they can help bring down the risk of fire.

Rather than leaves and other plant matter accumulating on the soil surface and drying out, this material is turned over faster, entering the soil when the badicoots dig, which speeds up its decay. Research from 2016 showed there’s less plant material covering the soil surface when digging mammals are about. Without diggers, models show fire spread and flame height are bigger.

In fact, all their functions are so important ecologists have dubbed these mighty diggers “ecosystem engineers”.

Losing diggers leads to poorer soil health

Of Australia’s 29 digging mammals, 23 are between 100 grams and 5 kilograms. Most are at risk of cat and fox predation, and many of these are officially listed as threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Since European settlement, six of Australia’s digging mammals have gone extinct, including the lesser bilby, desert rat kangaroo and pig-footed bandicoots. Many others have suffered marked population declines and extensive range contraction through habitat destruction and the introduction of foxes and cats.

Tragically, the widespread decline and extinction of many digging mammals means soil and ecosystem health has suffered as well.

Soils that were once soft textured, easy to crumble, rich and fertile are now often compact, repel water and nutrient poor, impeding seed germination and plant growth. Fuel loads are also likely to be much higher now than in the past, as less organic matter is dug into the soil.

To date, most research on digging mammals has focused on arid environments, with much less known about how digging influences wetter (mesic) environments. But our recently published study on eastern barred bandicoots provides new insights.

Just how much do bandicoots dig anyway?

In 2015, 20 mainland eastern barred bandicoots were released onto Churchill Island in Victoria’s Westernport Bay.

On mainland Australia, fox predation has driven this species to near extinction, and it’s classified as extinct in the wild. All Victoria’s islands are beyond the historic range of eastern barred bandicoots, but fox-free islands could be how we recover them.

Introducing bandicoots on Churchill Island presented the perfect opportunity to quantify how they influence soil properties when digging for food.

To do this we recorded the number of digs bandicoots made each night and measured the volume of soil they displaced through digging. We also compared soil moisture and compaction within the digs, versus un-dug soil – and we didn’t expect what we found.

In one night on Churchill Island, one bandicoot can make 41 digs an hour. That’s nearly 500 digs a night, equating to around 13 kilograms of soil being turned over every night, or 4.8 tonnes a year. That’s almost as much as the average weight of a male African elephant.

So, an astonishing amount of soil is being turned over, especially considering these bandicoots typically weigh around 750 grams.

If you multiply this by the number of bandicoots on Churchill Island (up from 20 in 2015 to around 130 at the time of our study in 2017), there’s a staggering 1,690 kilos of soil being dug up every night. That’s some major earthworks!

However, we should note our study was conducted during the wetter months, when soils are typically easier to dig.

In summer, as soil becomes harder and drier on Churchill Island, digging may become more difficult. And bandicoots, being great generalists, feed more on surface invertebrates like beetles and crickets, resulting in fewer digs. So we expect in summer that soil is less disturbed.

Bandicoots might help agriculture too

All this digging was found to boost soil health on Churchill Island. This means eastern barred bandicoots may not only play an important role in ecosystem health and regeneration, but also potentially in agriculture by assisting pasture growth and condition, reducing topsoil runoff, and mitigating the effects of trampling and soil compaction from livestock.

The benefits bandicoot digs have across agricultural land is of particular importance now that eastern barred bandicoots have also been released on Phillip Island and French Island, and are expected to extensively use pasture for foraging.

These island releases could not just help to ensure eastern barred bandicoots avoid extinction, but also promote productive agricultural land for farmers.

So, given the important ecological roles ecosystem engineers like bandicoots perform, it’s also important we try to reestablish their wild populations on the mainland and outside of fenced sanctuaries so we can all benefit from their digging, not just on islands.
The Conversation

The Conversation: How you can help – not harm – wild animals recovering from bushfires

Building one of these watering pods can help thirsty wildlife, but it must be checked for safety and hygiene, and refilled regularly. Image credits: Arid Recovery

By Marissa Parrott (University of Melbourne), Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University) and Euan Ritchie (Deakin University).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Since July last year, bushfires have burned more than 7.7 million hectares of southeast Australia, putting many threatened species at increased risk of extinction.

Now that fires have been extinguished in some areas, surviving wildlife face other challenges, such as a lack of food, clean water and shelter, and more exposure to invasive predators.

Australians have helped raise millions of dollars to support Australia’s imperilled wildlife, such as to set up triage centres and evacuate threatened species like eastern bristlebirds and Macquarie perch.

But beyond the vital role of providing financial support, here are a few simple things individuals can do – and avoid – to help our native wildlife recover.

Animals need fresh water, but not from a bottle

Photos of well-meaning people offering water from bottles to animals, especially thirsty koalas, often go viral online. But this is not a safe way to help koalas.

Animals must be allowed to drink water themselves, rather than us pouring water into their mouths. Animals, such as koalas, can’t drink quickly and poured water can fill their lungs, leading to potentially fatal aspiration pneumonia.

Still, providing safe, fresh drinking water is one crucial and practical way we can help them as summer grinds on.

This is particularly important since recent storms have washed ash, sediment and chemicals from burnt infrastructure into waterways, contaminating many catchments.

Water should be stationed at ground level, in a shaded location safe from predators, and in trees for birds and tree-dwelling species like possums, gliders and koalas. Check out DIY guides for building drinking fountains, or “watering pods”, for wildlife.

Sticks and rocks should be placed in the water to allow small species, such as reptiles, to climb out if they fall in. Water must be checked and changed regularly to ensure hygiene and avoid the spread of disease. And pets must be kept away from these locations (especially cats).

What to do if you spot injured wildlife by the road

Authorities are searching the fire grounds for injured animals, and the public is reminded to avoid these areas until they’re confirmed as safe to enter.

But if you happen upon an injured survivor, what should you do?

First of all, call government agencies or trained wildlife rescuers, who can assist any injured wildlife.

Many animals may be in pain and frightened and some, including kangaroos, koalas and wombats, are potentially dangerous if approached. In urgent cases, such as when an animal is in obvious distress or has clear injuries, some animals can be carefully caught and wrapped in a towel, then placed in a well-ventilated, dark and secure box for quiet transport to wildlife veterinary hospitals for care.

Sadly, many animals are hit by cars during fires when they’re disoriented and panicked, and so it’s important to slow down in such areas.

You can also check animals found by roads for injuries and surviving young in pouches, and call authorities to assist. But always be careful of traffic when attending to animals on roadsides, and help other drivers be aware of you by putting hazard lights on and wearing bright clothes.

Don’t feed native wildlife, especially not peanut butter mixes

With so much vegetation burned away, supplementary feeding has gained attention following fires in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

But feeding wildlife without expert advice and legal approval can do more harm than good.

Feeding inappropriate foods like processed foods, over-feeding, providing unhygienic foods or food stations, and attracting predators to food stations, can all be fatal for native wildlife.

Even some foods suggested online, such as bait balls (peanut butter mixes), can cause gastrointestinal issues for wildlife, potentially killing them. Similar issues can arise if wildlife are given some types of hay, vegetables, seeds, and fruits.

Supplementary feeding isn’t advised unless habitat and sources of food have been completely destroyed, and is only appropriate as a short-term emergency intervention until natural resources recover.

But leave it up to the experts and government agencies, which provide nutritionally suitable, specially developed and monitored food in extreme cases.

Somewhere to run and hide

In some cases, fire may mean native animals are more prone to predators killing and eating them. And, depending on the habitat, it may take months or even years for plants and animals’ homes to recover sufficiently to provide safety once again.

However, new approaches – such as building artificial shelters out of fencing wire and shade cloth – may help to buy species time, keeping small mammals, reptiles and other potential prey safe from hungry mouths. This could occur both on private and public land.

Show wildlife the money

Caring for wildlife after fires, whether they’re injured or have lost their homes, is a marathon, not a sprint. And given the scale of these fires, our wild neighbours need our increased support.

Often, the most helpful thing people can do is raise and donate funds to organisations, including Zoos Victoria and the Ecological Society of Australia.

Some wildife species, such as bristlebirds, corroboree frogs, and mountain pygmy-possums, are being pushed to the brink of extinction and may need long-term captive breeding and release programs, or investment in active management of wild populations (such as the newly constructed feral predator-free area for Kangaroo Island dunnarts).

We can all help to make a difference and protect our remarkable and unique wildlife that so desperately needs our help.The Conversation

The Conversation: This centuries-old river red gum is a local legend – here’s why it’s worth fighting for

By Euan Ritchie, Deakin University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, his titular character famously said: “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

In the midst of a global extinction crisis, the Lorax’s call to preserve what is precious couldn’t be more apt. The greatest threat to the survival of species globally continues to be habitat destruction and modification.

A potential and local victim of this ongoing environmental catastrophe is a single tree, and a tree I have a deep personal connection with. The tree I refer to is Bulleen’s iconic 300-year-old river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis).

To me, this tree has been a constant in my life. While everything else has changed around me, it has stood there, solid, just as solid as its red gum fibres are known to be.

As a child, I fondly remember looking up at this tree in awe, as we’d often stop at the nearby service station on a hot summer’s day to buy a cold drink or ice-cream on the way to Saturday sport, the nearby Birrarung (Yarra River), or my grandmother’s house.

Bulleen’s majestic river red gum

It’s estimated to be approximately 20 metres in height with a canopy spread of 17 metres. And its trunk measures a whopping two metres across.

The tree is thought to be the oldest remnant of a once substantial red gum forest, and was saved by a local resident when the rest of the area was cleared for the construction of a service station.

It now faces destruction, as it is within the preferred path of construction for Victoria’s North East link.

While the measurements of this tree are impressive, the splendour and value for me is that it has survived for so long and, in more recent times, against tremendous odds.

Surviving against all odds

The Bulleen red gum stands beside one of Melbourne’s busiest roads and the immediate area is covered with concrete and bitumen. The tree’s roots and health have therefore been challenged for a long time, and yet this massive red gum stands, as if in defiance of the modern world and the development that has encircled it.

Since this tree has survived for so long, it undoubtedly holds a special connection with so many: the Wurundjeri-willam people of the Kulin Nation, members of Australia’s famed Heidelberg school of artists who lived and worked in the near vicinty, everyday commuters that have driven or walked by or stopped to admire it, or the war verteran Nevin Phillips who once apparently defended it with his rifle against it being chainsawed.

Further proof of the value of this tree to so many is that it was awarded The National Trust of Australia’s (Victoria) 2019 Victorian Tree of the Year.

Why we must speak for and save old trees

I grew up near this tree and, like the Lorax, I would like to speak for it.
Trees as old as the Bulleen river red gum are now increasingly rare in our world, and beyond their strong personal and cultural values, including in some places as Aboriginal birthing sites, they are tremendously important for other reasons as well.

These trees provide shade and help keep our cities cooler, improve our mental health and wellbeing, and store considerable amounts of carbon aiding our fight against climate change.

Perhaps most importantly, under their bark and in their cracks and hollows, they provide homes for many of Australia’s precious but increasingly imperilled native wildlife, including bats, birds, possums and gliders, snakes and lizards, insects and spiders.

These homes are prime wildlife real estate, especially in our big cities, where such large old trees are vanishingly rare but where considerable wildlife, common and threatened, still persists. And yet more could survive with a helping hand from us.

As cities like Melbourne continue to grow around the world, there will be more and more cases where arguments of progress are used to justify the further destruction of what nature remains. But progress shouldn’t come at any cost, and in the case of preserving iconic and valuable trees such as Bulleen’s river red gum, it would seem there’s more than enough reasons to ensure this tree’s life and its many values continue.

Perhaps again the wise sage, the Lorax, says it best. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
The Conversation

The Conversation: The dingo is a true-blue, native Australian species

Canis dingo: not a wolf, and not just another dog.

By Bradley Smith (CQUniversity Australia), Corey JA Bradshaw (Flinders University), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Justin W Adams (Monash University), Kylie M Cairns (University of New South Wales), and Mathew Crowther (University of Sydney).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Of all Australia’s wildlife, one stands out as having an identity crisis: the dingo. But our recent article in the journal Zootaxa argues that dingoes should be regarded as a bona fide species on multiple fronts.

This isn’t just an issue of semantics. How someone refers to dingoes may reflect their values and interests, as much as the science.

How scientists refer to dingoes in print reflects their background and place of employment, and the Western Australian government recently made a controversial attempt to classify the dingo as “non-native fauna”.

How we define species – called taxonomy – affects our attitudes, and long-term goals for their conservation.

What is a dog?

Over many years, dingoes have been called many scientific names: Canis lupus dingo (a subspecies of the wolf), Canis familiaris (a domestic dog), and Canis dingo (its own species within the genus Canis). But these names have been applied inconsistently in both academic literature and government policy.

This inconsistency partially reflects the global arguments regarding the naming of canids. For those who adhere to the traditional “biological” species concept (in which a “species” is a group of organisms that can interbreed), one might consider the dingo (and all other canids that can interbreed, like wolves, coyotes, and black-backed jackals) to be part of a single, highly variable and widely distributed species.

But the “biological” species concept used to name species came about long before modern genetic tools, or even before many hybrid species were identified by their DNA (such as the “red wolf,” an ancient hybrid of grey wolves and coyotes found in the southeastern United States).

Few people would really argue that a chihuahua, a wolf, and a coyote are the same species. In reality there are many more comprehensive and logical ways to classify a species. In our latest paper we argue that a holistic approach to defining species is essential in the case of the dingo and other canids.

Our work shows conclusively that dingoes are distinct from wild canids and domestic dogs based on many different criteria.

Truly wild

The first criterion is that dingoes are wild animals, and live completely independent from humans. This is fundamentally different to domestic, feral, or wild dogs, which must live near human settlements and rely on humans for food and water in some way to survive.

Yes, the dingo might have arrived in Australia with humans, and we know that Aboriginal Australians have had a close relationship with dingoes following the latter’s arrival. But neither of these observations excludes dingoes from being wild.

For example, a relationship with humans does not constitute the rigorous definitions of domestication. Consider the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), which was also introduced to Australia by people and are now free-ranging: they are also not considered to be domesticated. Neither are wild animals such as birds that we feed in our backyards domesticated simply because they are sometimes fed by us.

Ecological role

In fact, dingoes have been living wild and independently of humans for a very long time — they have a distinct and unique evolutionary past that diverged some 5 to 10 thousand years ago from other canids. This is more than enough time for the dingo to have evolved into a naturalised predator now integral to maintaining the health of many Australian ecosystems.

Dogs do not have the brain power or body adaptations to survive in the wild, and they cannot play the same ecological role as dingoes. From this ecological perspective alone, the two species are not interchangeable. Dingoes are Australia’s only large (between 15-20 kg), land-based predator, and as such play a vital role in Australia’s environment.

Shape and size

Viewed alone, the overall shape of the body and skull does not easily distinguish wild canids from dogs, mainly because of the sheer diversity among different breeds of domestic dogs.

But there are some important body differences between free-ranging dogs and dingoes, mainly in the skull region (as shown here and here).

Behaviour

Dingoes (and other truly wild canids) have some fundamentally unique behaviours that set them apart from dogs (although like shape, there are often exceptions among the artificial dog breeds). For example, dingoes have significantly different reproductive biology and care-giving strategies.

There are also differences in brain function, such as in the way the two species solve problems, and dingoes and dogs communicate differently with humans.

Genetics

While dingoes and dogs obviously share an ancestral relationship, there is a lot of genetic data to support the distinction between dingoes and dogs.

While dingoes share ancestry with ancient Asian dogs from 10,000 years ago, the dingo has been geographically isolated from all other canids for many thousands of years, and genetic mixing has only been occurring recently, most probably driven by human intervention.

Since the 1990s, genetic markers have been in widespread use by land managers, conservation groups, and researchers to differentiate dingoes from domestic dogs.

What’s at stake?

Even acknowledging the dingo’s uncertain and distant past, lumping dingoes and dogs together is unjustified.

Labelling dingoes as “feral domestic dogs” or some other misnomer ignores their unique, long, and quintessentially wild history in Australia.

Inappropriate naming also has serious implications for their treatment. Any label less than “dingo” can be used to justify their legal persecution.

Further loss of dingoes could have serious, negative ecological consequences, including potentially placing other Australian native animals at increased risk of extinction.The Conversation

The Wire: Experts call for dramatic decrease in land clearing

More than 300 scientists, practitioners and students have made a stark declaration to Australian lawmakers to curb the dramatic pace of land clearing across the nation.

The experts say that irreparable damage has already been done, and that the continued pace of current land clearing can make us more prone to bushfires and drought, accelerate the impact of climate change and severely impact Australian farmers.

Dingo dinners: what’s on the menu for Australia’s top predator?

By Tim Doherty (Deakin University), Chris Dickman (University of Sydney), Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University) and Thomas Newsome (University of Sydney).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The dingo is Australia’s largest land-based predator, occurring across most of the mainland and on many nearshore islands.

Our new research, published in the journal Mammal Review, reveals the breadth and diversity of dingo diets across the continent.

We compiled and analysed 73 sets of data, containing details of more than 32,000 dingo droppings or stomach contents, to document the range of different species that dingoes eat, and how their diets vary between different environments.

A wide-ranging diet

We found that dingoes eat at least 229 vertebrate species. This includes 62 small mammals (less than 500 grams in mass), 79 medium-sized and larger mammals, 10 species of hoofed mammals, 50 birds and 26 reptiles. Dingoes also eat insects, crustaceans, centipedes, fish and frogs.

The true number of species is likely to be much higher because dingo diets have been poorly studied in many parts of Australia, such as Cape York Peninsula.

Large (at least 7 kg) and medium-sized (0.5 to 6.9 kg) mammals were the most common components of dingo diets, followed by small mammals, rabbits, arthropods, reptiles, birds and hoofed animals.

Average occurrence of eight food types in the diet of dingoes. Values represent the percentage of droppings/stomachs that contained each food type.

A range of introduced pest species also feature in dingo diets, including deer, goats, rabbits, hares, black rats, house mice, foxes and cats. In recent decades, the occurrence of sambar deer in dingo diets has increased as this invasive species has expanded its range.

Dingoes also eat sheep and cattle, although dietary samples are unable to distinguish between predation and scavenging, and hence tell us little about dingo impacts on livestock production. Dietary samples also do not reveal instances of dingoes killing livestock without eating them.

Regional variation

We found that what dingoes eat depends on where they live. For instance, in arid central Australia, birds, reptiles, rabbits, small mammals and insects form major parts of dingo diets. In contrast, these food groups are less important in temperate and subtropical eastern Australia, where medium-sized and large mammals such as kangaroos, bandicoots and possums are more important.

Frequency of different food groups in dingoes’ diet. Each circle represents a study and is scaled proportionally with dietary occurrence; larger circles represent a higher frequency of that food type. Top row: arthropods and small mammals (less than 500 g); middle row: reptiles and medium-sized mammals (0.5-6.9kg); bottom row: rabbits and large mammals (at least 7 kg).

The higher occurrence of medium-sized mammals in dingo diets in eastern Australia may be due to the lower extinction rates of native mammals there. In contrast, central Australia is a global mammal extinction hotspot, which probably accounts for the low occurrence of medium-sized mammals in dingo diets in arid and semi-arid areas.

Nonetheless, one medium-sized mammal was a major food item for dingoes in arid areas: the European rabbit. In some areas, more than 50% of dingo droppings or stomachs contained the remains of this invasive species. It is possible that native medium-sized mammals previously constituted a major part of dingo diets in arid Australia, but have since been replaced by rabbits.

Local prey availability plays a major role in determining what dingoes eat. For instance, in the Tanami Desert, reptiles were most common in dingo diets during warmer months when they are most active. However, very few studies have collected data on prey availability, partly because of the sheer number of different animals that dingoes eat.

Threatened species

Dingoes kill or eat at least 39 native species that are classed as threatened or near-threatened on the IUCN Red List. These include the northern quoll, golden bandicoot and bridled nailtail wallaby.

This tally is higher than the number of threatened species in feral cat diets (based on a previous study that used similar methods), even though cats eat almost twice as many different species overall as dingoes (400 and 229, respectively).

Today’s threatened native species co-existed with dingoes for a long time before European colonisation, which means they were able to withstand dingo predation without going extinct.

But now a combination of small population sizes of some threatened species and exacerbating factors such as habitat loss, foxes and cats means some threatened species could be vulnerable to even low levels of dingo predation. Predation by dingoes should therefore be a key consideration when attempting to conserve or restore threatened species.

Dietary studies are one way we can understand how dingoes interact with other species. Our study also highlights that we still have much to learn about our native top predator. In many parts of Australia, the favourite foods of dingoes are still a mystery.

The authors acknowledge the contribution of Naomi Davis, Dave Forsyth, Mike Letnic, Russell Palmer, Joe Benshemesh, Glenn Edwards, Jenny Lawrence, Lindy Lumsden, Charlie Pascoe, Andy Sharp, Danielle Stokeld, Cecilia Myers, Georgeanna Story, Paul Story, Barbara Triggs, Mark Venosta and Mike Wysong to this research.
The Conversation

The Conservation: Guardian dogs, fencing, and ‘fladry’ protect livestock from carnivores

Livestock guardian dog breeds, such as Maremma, are often raised with and trained to consider themselves part of a livestock herd and so protect their herd from threats. Image via Shutterstock.

By Lily van Eeden (University of Sydney), Adrian Treves (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Euan Ritchie (Deakin University).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Farmers have struggled for millennia to protect their livestock from wolves, lions, bears, and other large carnivores. It’s expensive and time-consuming for farmers, governments and related agencies. Many current approaches have led to dramatic reductions or the complete loss of some apex predators from many regions of the globe.

Despite these substantial costs and their long history, we have remarkably little understanding of what methods best reduce livestock attacks.

A recent synthesis study, led by Lily van Eeden, Ann Eklund, Jennie Miller, and Adrian Treves with a total of 21 authors from 10 countries, found that there’s a worldwide dearth of rigorous experimental studies testing the effectiveness of interventions to protect livestock from carnivores.

Where studies do exist, results were mixed. Some management interventions did reduce livestock losses, some made little to no difference, and some resulted in increased livestock losses. This means that for some methods, farmers would be better off doing nothing at all than using them.

Poor evidence, poor outcomes

The scant evidence is cause for concern. Aside from financial waste, preventable livestock attacks cause economic, emotional, and social costs for farmers. And both livestock and carnivores may be left maimed and suffering by human failures to separate the two sets of animals.

Too often, studies and management programs measure success based on money spent or saved, numbers of community members who contributed, or carnivores killed. None of these factors necessarily mean livestock loss is prevented or reduced.

In fact, livestock owners, policy makers, and scientists should work together to build an evidence base and discover what works best to reduce attacks on livestock under different conditions.

What works and why

Where we found rigorous studies quantifying livestock loss, three methods were consistently effective: livestock guardian dogs, some kinds of fencing, and a deterrent called “fladry” (a Polish word for strips of cloth or plastic flagging hung at regular intervals along a rope or fence line).

Livestock guardian dogs have been used successfully in Europe for centuries and are now seeing a revival elsewhere, including in North America and Africa.

Livestock guardian dog breeds, such as Maremma and Komondor, are typically much larger than herding dogs. They are raised with and trained to consider themselves part of a livestock herd and so protect their herd from threats.

While dogs are most common, they’re not the only guardian animals: llamas, alpacas, and donkeys are also used to protect livestock from smaller predators like coyotes and foxes, but more research is needed to determine how effective they are.

Fencing can be simple post-and-wire, an electric fence, or corrals, kraals or bomas (circular enclosures used in some parts of Africa) constructed from stones or wood.

Livestock can be kept within fenced areas all the time, or only at night when they are most vulnerable to carnivores (who often hunt at night, dawn, or dusk).

Our study didn’t find sufficient evidence to show that all kinds of fencing work, but there was enough that they should be considered generally effective and adapted to local conditions.

“Fladry” is a Polish word for strips of cloth or plastic flagging hung at regular intervals along a rope or fence line. Fladry is usually red, which is considered the most effective colour for scaring away carnivores. This method has been proven effective at deterring predators like grey wolves and coyotes from entering pastures.

Interestingly, all three of the methods we found to be generally effective do not involve killing carnivores.

This is good news for carnivore conservation, because it means that management can simultaneously protect livestock and carnivores. Large carnivores can play crucial roles in ecosystem regulation, so removing them can cause cascading consequences for landscapes and biodiversity.

Given the damage that ineffective management can cause to farming communities, animal welfare, and ecosystems, we hope our research serves as a catalyst for policy-makers and practitioners to think critically about the methods they use and why.

Too often, we continue to use a particular method due to habit and history, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to protect assets.

Governments that continue to fund and encourage ineffective management are not giving farming communities the best chance of success.

The Conversation

YouTube: Carnivore conservation needs evidence-based livestock protection

A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Biology reveals certain nonlethal methods are effective for managing predators in agricultural landscapes. Twenty-one authors from 10 nations reviewed 114 peer-reviewed scientific studies measuring the effectiveness of lethal and non-lethal methods for reducing carnivore predation on livestock. Livestock guardian dogs, livestock enclosures and fladry all were scientifically shown to be effective conflict deterrents.

 

Australian Geographic: The extinction crisis: Australians call for a radical re-haul of environmental laws

Australia is failing to meet international obligations to protect our unique wildlife, experts say.

Recounting a list of Australian animals on the brink of extinction comes all too easily to Euan Ritchie, an Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at Deakin University.

“Obvious examples include the orange-bellied parrot, which only has a few individuals left in the wild,” he says, referring to the multi-coloured grass parrot with a total population of less than 50 that migrates between Tasmania and mainland Australia…

Continue reading on the Australian Geographic website

The Conversation: Why the WA government is wrong to play identity politics with dingoes

Western Australian Minister for the Environment Stephen Dawson has declared that the dingo, Australia’s native canine, will no longer be classified as native. Image credit Leo via Flickr.

By Bradley Smith (CQUniversity Australia), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University) and Lily van Eeden, (University of Sydney).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s Commonwealth Coat of Arms depicts two iconic native animals – the kangaroo and the emu. Both are unquestionably fair dinkum Aussies, unique to this continent and having lived here for a very long time. A “very long time”, according to Australian legislation (the EPBC Act 1999), is any species having been present since before the year 1400.

But in Western Australia, under the state’s Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, no native animal is guaranteed protection. The Act includes a caveat whereby the relevant minister may determine that a native species is in fact, not.

This week, WA’s environment minister Stephen Dawson did just that, declaring that from January 1, 2019, the dingo, Australia’s native canine, will no longer be classified as native fauna.

The dingo does meet the federal government’s criterion, having lived in Australia as a wild canid for an estimated 5,000 years. But under the planned changes in WA, the dingo will lose its current listing as “unprotected fauna”, and will from next year be considered indistinguishable from either the common domestic dog or feral dogs.

What is a species anyway?

According to the biological species concept, a species is a group that has the ability to interbreed and produce viable, fertile offspring. Dingoes, dogs and other canids do interbreed (or “hybridise”), and indeed this is one of the key reasons why the pure dingo is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

But this ability to hybridise is also one of the main justifications cited by the WA government in its decision to revoke the dingo’s citizenship (the fact sheet has since been removed from the website, but can be accessed here). The rationale is that if dingoes and dogs are technically the same species, why should dingoes get special treatment?

However, the biological species concept is problematic when applied to canids. If you lump dingoes and dogs together because they readily interbreed, then logically we must do the same for wolves, coyotes, jackals or other canids that can also interbreed (and have done for millenia).

It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously suggesting that a grey wolf and a pug are the same species. This suggests that this criterion alone is insufficient to solve the conundrum. Indeed, there are at least 32 different species concepts, clearly illustrating the difficulty of defining a single rule by which all organisms should abide.

Despite this, a recent paper that argues the biological species concept should be applied to dingoes, was cited as supporting evidence by the WA government. Adopting this narrow interpretation of taxonomy is perhaps somewhat premature. It ignores other investigations that provide evidence to the contrary. Given the contention around defining species, it seems unwise to determine the species status of dingoes independently of other, more comprehensive evidence and argument.

Distinguishing dingoes

All canids share similarities, but their differences are also many and marked. The dingo can be distinguished from other dogs in various ways: their appearance, anatomy, behaviour, their role in ecosystems, and their genetics (their evolutionary history and degree of relatedness to other species). Dingoes seem to be largely devoid of many of the signs of domestication.

It is therefore reasonable for the dingo to be considered separately from wolves and domestic dogs, while also acknowledging that they all occupy the same broad species classification, Canis lupus.

Having lived in Australia as free-living, wild populations for around 5,000 years almost exclusively under the forces of natural selection, and separately from any other dog lineage until European arrival, there is no notion of the dingo as a domestic animal gone feral. To classify dingoes as nothing more than “feral domestic dogs” expunges their unique, long and quintessentially wild history. Dingoes are not ecologically interchangeable with any other type of dog, either wild or domesticated.

Labelling the dingo as a feral domestic dog changes their legal status and removes any current obligations for developing appropriate management plans. This demotion of status could lead to intensified lethal control. Indeed, control may even be legally mandated.

In the absence of thylacines, mainland Tasmanian devils, and other apex predators, the ecological role that the dingo plays in the Australian landscape is vital. Dingoes help to control kangaroo and feral goat populations, and in some cases foxes and cats as well.

Given WA’s remoteness, it remains one of the few bastions of pure dingoes, and as such it presents an opportunity to seek ways to protect them rather than pave the way for their removal. The WA government’s decision also sets a dangerous precedent for the management of dingoes, and indeed other contentious native wildlife, elsewhere in Australia.

How we choose to classify plants and animals might sound like dry science. But it has genuine implications for policy, management and conservation. Our scientific naming systems are vital for helping to organise and understand the rich biological diversity with which we share the planet, but it is important to remember that these systems are informed not just by biology but also by our values.

In this case, economic and political interests appear to have been favoured over wildlife preservation, and given Australia’s unenviable conservation record this is deeply concerning.
The Conversation

ABC News: Dingoes to remain classified as non-native wild dogs under reform to Western Australian law

Widespread reforms to WA’s Biodiversity Conservation Act, expected next year, will not consider a change to the existing classification of a dingo as a wild dog, not native to Australia.

The iconic animals are considered no different to wild dogs and can be trapped or killed without permission in many places.

Dingoes are currently classed as unprotected native fauna and a declared pest, but the animals will be listed as non-fauna under widespread reform to the Act…

Continue reading on the ABC News website

Passing the brumby bill is a backward step for environmental protection in Australia

With the passing of the so-called “brumby bill” against scientific advice, feral horses will continue to damage the internationally significant Kosciuszko National Park.

By Don Driscoll, Euan Ritchie, and Tim Doherty (Deakin University)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Late on Wednesday night the so-called “brumby bill” was passed without amendment in the New South Wales Parliament. The controversial Coalition bill, supported by the Christian Democrats and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, means that feral horses must be kept in Kosciuszko National Park.

It also creates a community advisory panel, with no scientific experts appointed, to advise the minister on how to manage the horse population in the alpine ecosystem.

The NSW government has attracted accusations of a conflict of interest. Former Nationals member Peter Cochran, who now runs a commercial venture offering brumbie-spotting rides through the National Park (and who has donated extensively to Deputy Premier John Barilaro) reportedly commissioned lawyers to draft the bill. Peter Cochran, John Barilaro and Gladys Berejiklian have denied all accusations of conflict of interest and underhanded conduct.

The bill has also been criticised by scientific bodies. In a letter to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian this week, the Australian Academy of Science noted that the legislation removes consideration of scientific advice, and called for the bill to be withdrawn or substantially amended.

In a rare move, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has also written to the NSW government, expressing concern over the potential degradation of this internationally significant national park.

Out of step with other states

The NSW Labor Party does not support the bill and has pledged to repeal the legislation if elected next March. The legislation represents a radical change in NSW’s management of feral horses, coming after a 2016 draft strategy that recommenced reducing their population by 90% over 20 years.

NSW now stands in contrast to other Australian states. Last Saturday, Victoria launched its Feral Horse Strategic Action Plan. That plan aims to protect native species and ecosystems in national parks by removing or controlling feral horses and is a welcome step in the right direction. Victorian environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio called on the NSW and federal governments to support a unified approach to feral horse management in Australia’s alpine regions.

Is culling in or out?

The Victorian plan excludes aerial culling but will revisit horse control methods if the proposed trapping methods don’t reduce environmental impacts. Aerial culling is widely practised throughout Australia, including Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland (where culling was used to improve road safety), and the Australian Capital Territory, which borders Kosciuszko National Park.

Barilaro argued against aerial culling when he presented the Brumby bill to parliament, calling it cruel and barbaric. He reiterated that the bill is meant to prevent lethal control in his response to Victoria’s announcement. But surprisingly, the draft legislation makes no mention of control methods, lethal or otherwise.

The deputy premier also referred to the Guy Fawkes National Park horse cull in northern NSW in 2000 to support his argument against aerial culling. But an independent enquiry found that the cull was an appropriate humane response to the situation, where horses were starving to death and causing environmental damage after a fire. The RSPCA and independent reports show that aerial culling is an acceptable and humane way to manage horse numbers.

Further, the brumby bill now locks in the predictable outcome that thousands of horses are likely to starve to death in the next drought or after large fires. It is therefore puzzling that actions likely to increase horse suffering are not of great concern to many within the pro-brumby lobby.

Greater emphasis, instead, has been put on a cultural argument for protecting feral horses: for example, by claiming that feral horses made enormous contributions to Australia’s World War One effort. However, the cultural heritage report prepared for the NSW National Parks Service says “there is no definitive evidence that remount horses were directly taken from the brumby population of what is now Kosciusko National Park”.

The Sydney Olympics opening ceremony was also offered as evidence that brumbies are integral to Australian culture. However, Australian Stock horses, not brumbies, were showcased at the Sydney Olympics – a distinct breed, established by horse enthusiasts in the 1970s.

That said, it is true that horses in the snowy mountains do have local cultural value. But so too does the native fauna and flora threatened by feral horses, many of which only occur in Australia’s high country. This includes species such as the southern corroboree frog, alpine she-oak skink, broad-toothed rat, Raleigh sedge and mauve burr-daisy.

Can we compromise?

Is a compromise possible, in which both cultural and conservation goals can be accommodated? We think so. The feral horse population can be removed from the national parks and sensitive ecosystems. Brumby herds can thrive on extensive private property in the region, an approach already proven in South Australia’s Coffin Bay National Park.

The brumby bill was written and presented to parliament by groups with at best a perceived conflict of interest, and promoted by using inaccurate information about culling and heritage. It has been roundly criticised by leading national and international scientific bodies for not taking adequate account of science and the key role of national parks in conserving biodiversity.

That this bill has now passed the NSW upper house is a further backward step for conservation goals and Australia’s international reputation for environmental protection, and sets a dangerous precedent by undermining prominent national and state environmental policy. It remains to be seen how this legislation aligns with the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, given that it literally tramples over several matters of national environmental significance.

The Conversation

From drone swarms to tree batteries, new tech is revolutionising ecology and conservation

Eyes in the sky: drone footage is becoming a vital tool for monitoring ecosystems. Image credit: Deakin Marine Mapping Group

By Euan Ritchie and Blake Allen, Deakin University

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

Understanding Earth’s species and ecosystems is a monumentally challenging scientific pursuit. But with the planet in the grip of its sixth mass extinction event, it has never been a more pressing priority.

To unlock nature’s secrets, ecologists turn to a variety of scientific instruments and tools. Sometimes we even repurpose household items, with eyebrow-raising results – whether it’s using a tea strainer to house ants, or tackling botfly larvae with a well-aimed dab of nail polish.

But there are many more high-tech options becoming available for studying the natural world. In fact, ecology is on the cusp of a revolution, with new and emerging technologies opening up new possibilities for insights into nature and applications for conserving biodiversity.

Our study, published in the journal Ecosphere, tracks the progress of this technological development. Here we highlight a few examples of these exciting advances.

Tiny tracking sensors

Electronically recording the movement of animals was first made possible by VHF radio telemetry in the 1960s. Since then even more species, especially long-distance migratory animals such as caribou, shearwaters and sea turtles, have been tracked with the help of GPS and other satellite data.

But our understanding of what affects animals’ movement and other behaviours, such as hunting, is being advanced further still by the use of “bio-logging” – equipping the animals themselves with miniature sensors.

Many types of miniature sensors have now been developed, including accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, micro cameras, and barometers. Together, these devices make it possible to track animals’ movements with unprecedented precision. We can also now measure the “physiological cost” of behaviours – that is, whether an animal is working particularly hard to reach a destination, or within a particular location, to capture and consume its prey.

Taken further, placing animal movement paths within spatially accurate 3D-rendered (computer-generated) environments will allow ecologists to examine how individuals respond to each other and their surroundings.

These devices could also help us determine whether animals are changing their behaviour in response to threats such as invasive species or habitat modification. In turn, this could tell us what conservation measures might work best.

Autonomous vehicles

Remotely piloted vehicles, including drones, are now a common feature of our skies, land, and water. Beyond their more typical recreational uses, ecologists are deploying autonomous vehicles to measure environments, observe species, and assess changes through time, all with a degree of detail that was never previously possible.

Coupling autonomous vehicles with sensors (such as thermal imaging) now makes it easier to observe rare, hidden or nocturnal species. It also potentially allows us to catch poachers red-handed, which could help to protect animals like rhinoceros, elephants and pangolins.

3D printing

Despite 3D printing having been pioneered in the 1980s, we are only now beginning to realise the potential uses for ecological research. For instance, it can be used to make cheap, lightweight tracking devices that can be fitted onto animals. Or it can be used to create complex and accurate models of plants, animals or other organisms, for use in behavioural studies.

Bio-batteries

Keeping electronic equipment running in the field can be a challenge. Conventional batteries have limited life spans, and can contain toxic chemicals. Solar power can help with some of these problems, but not in dimly lit areas, such as deep in the heart of rainforests.

“Bio-batteries” may help to overcome this challenge. They convert naturally occurring sources of chemical energy, such as starch, into electricity using enzymes. “Plugging-in” to trees may allow sensors and other field equipment to be powered cheaply for a long time in places without sun or access to mains electricity.

Combining technologies

All of the technologies described above sit on a continuum from previous (now largely mainstream) technological solutions, to new and innovative ones now being trialled.

Emerging technologies are exciting by themselves, but when combined with one another they can revolutionise ecological research. Here is a modified exerpt from our paper:

These advancements will not only generate more accurate research data, but should also minimise the disturbance to species and ecosystems in the process.

Not only will this minimise the stress to animals and the inadvertent spread of diseases, but it should also provide a more “natural” picture of how plants, animals and other organisms interact.

Realising the techno-ecological revolution will require better collaboration across disciplines and industries. Ecologists should ideally also be exposed to relevant technology-based training (such as engineering or IT) and industry placements early in their careers.

The ConversationSeveral initiatives, such as Wildlabs, the Conservation Technology Working Group and TechnEcology, are already addressing these needs. But we are only just at the start of what’s ultimately possible.
The Conversation

Planet Earth II Live unites art and science in a celebration of nature

Flamingoes dance on a lake in South America in Planet Earth II Live in Concert. Image credit: Travis Hayto

By Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

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

Following an epic and determined journey by an amorous male pygymy three-toed sloth, witnessing golden eagles duel over a fox carcass against a backdrop of majestic mountains, or simply being in awe of one of evolution’s most sublime creations, the sword-billed hummingbird, it’s fair to say I was more than a little excited to experience the Melbourne production of BBC’s Planet Earth II Live in Concert.

The show is a fusion of BBC’s extraordinary wildlife and landscape footage, from the Planet Earth II documentary series. It’s presented on a suitably massive screen, accompanied by a live orchestra playing a score written specially for this visual and aural celebration of nature.

The start of the show was sensational, a montage of wildlife imagery from around the world, with the emotional roller-coaster expertly enhanced by the beauty and fusion with the music that filled the room. It was akin to walking through a gallery, where the individual, finer details of paintings were unimportant, but the overall majesty of what was on show swept you away. I wish the remainder of the show had continued in this vein.

The actual images of wildlife were as we’ve come to expect from the BBC’s legendary wildlife team, second to none. A close-up of a lioness’s paw rippling as it moved across the sands of the Namib Desert while stalking a giraffe, a starling murmuration above Rome, langurs leaping through Jodhpur and, of course, the now famous great escape by a hatchling marine iguana from scores of hungry racer snakes were all captivating.

The orchestra was outstanding. Such was the power of the wildlife footage that at times it was possible to forget their presence, but at key moments onscreen they were most certainly heard and felt, providing a truly emotional and visceral experience.

There were many things to like, but a number of important elements didn’t work, which really detracted from what the show could have been. The first and perhaps most important problem was that each sequence was introduced, in far too much detail, by Eric Bana, who had the unenviable task of trying to replace some of David Attenborough’s narration of the original documentary series.

Bana’s commentary was aimed at making people more informed about the wildlife being featured, but it had the unfortunate effect of giving away exactly what was about to happen next, rather than allowing the audience to have the joy of discovering this for themselves, a very odd production decision. It made the performance feel quite stilted and disjointed, which wasn’t helped by an unannounced 20-minute intermission mid-show.

Bana is a fine Australian actor, but his casual approach and lighthearted jokes were unnecessary, and often not particularly funny. Most importantly, it took attention away from the main event, which should have been what was happening on screen. It reminded me of watching a great film on commercial TV and being engrossed, only to be wrenched out of this blissful state by the dreaded commercial break. This happened multiple times throughout the evening. Judicious and sparing use of surtitles could have remedied this situation.

Another deficiency was the editing and sequence of footage. We were told about the plight of a primate relative of humans, the Indri, from Madagascar’s rapidly disappearing forests. So why then did this sequence start with flying draco lizards from Southeast Asia and toucans from South America? Perhaps many were not bothered by this and instead it just reflects my ecological background.

The Indri was one of several species to appear a number of times in the show, sometimes without narration or explanation. This seemed puzzling given how much amazing material the BBC has at its disposal. Australian wildlife was also conspicuous by its absence.

Finally, at times the show’s lighting was over-the-top, washing out and obscuring imagery on the screen.

There was an attempt towards the end of the show to send a message to the audience about the plight of life of Earth, including how our cities could better accommodate plants and animals to live alongside us. There were painful times during the show when I felt like I was watching soon-to-be ghosts, given the current and dire mass extinction event we have created and are witnessing. I couldn’t help notice the irony of the many audience members watching wildlife while drinking bottled water they’d bought during the show’s intermission, a symptom of our dependence on plastics and consumption.

There is no question in my mind that a greater union between the arts and sciences, such as this event, has enormous potential for positive change.

So my greatest hope is that everyone who attended the show felt moved the next day to assess their own choices and how they affect the other species with which we share this planet, and that together we collectively demand our governments to ensure a sustainable future that preserves Earth’s remarkable wonders.
The Conversation

The Conversation: Rockin’ the suburbs – bandicoots live among us in Melbourne

Young southern brown bandicoots (Isoodon obesulus obesulus), an endangered marsupial species living in outer Melbourne. Image credit: Sarah Maclagan.

By Euan Ritchie and Sarah Maclagan, Deakin University.

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

There are more and more of us on Earth, and increasingly we’re choosing to live in cities. This is a problem for wildlife: urbanisation is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity. Sprawling construction to accommodate people completely removes or modifies the homes of many other species.

But although we need to do all we can to mitigate these effects and their causes, cities are far from biodiversity wastelands. In fact, cities are home to large numbers of species, many of which are threatened.

One such example is the iconic but endangered southern brown bandicoot. New research has found these shy animals thriving in peri-urban areas (the interface between cities and more rural areas) on the outskirts of Melbourne.

Novel ecosystems

Through our effects on the environment, humans are increasingly creating “novel ecosystems”: areas composed of new combinations of species and/or new and modified environmental conditions. In these areas there are winners and losers. How we perceive and manage such ecosystems could have a big influence on conserving species more broadly, and helping to address Earth’s extinction crisis.

We studied these issues by examining the ecology of the endangered southern brown bandicoot in southeast Melbourne. Specifically, we compared bandicoot abundance and body condition between novel sites, made up of peri-urban areas, and more natural remnant sites at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Cranbourne and Quail Island Nature Conservation Reserve, which more closely resemble original bandicoot habitat.

Our goal was to see whether novel sites could support resident bandicoots. Crucially, could peri-urban areas allow bandicoots to breed, recruit (attract new migrating individuals) and survive well enough for populations to persist?

Don’t judge habitats by their appearance

Contrary to what the Human Threat Hypothesis (and logic) might predict, we found more bandicoots at novel sites (66 individuals recorded over 1722 trap-nights) than remnant sites (26 individuals recorded over 1384 trap-nights). And bandicoots were most abundant at the novel site with the most urbanised surroundings. The condition of females was similar between novel and remnant sites.

Most bandicoots at novel sites were resident (meaning they were observed at the same location multiple times thoughout the study). At these same sites we recorded successful breeding, recruitment of young adults, and survival of mature adults.

Our results challenge conventional conservation thinking. Where bandicoots did best is also where known predators such as foxes and feral cats are present and abundant, as opposed to the nature reserves from which they are largely absent. Remnant areas also have more intact native vegetation, whereas bandicoots in urban areas nested in roadsides full of invasive blackberry, a weed often targeted for removal.

Bandicoots like thick vegetation, but they appear not to care which plant species they use – as long as cover is sufficient. Blackberry bushes may protect bandicoots from predators, and also be a source of food through the insects they attract.

On the topic of food and just how adaptable bandicoots are, locals within our study region reported them dining on pet and domestic animal food from backyards.

Conservation opportunities in cities

A growing body of evidence suggests that even heavily modified environments can support viable populations of native plants and animals, and we should endeavour to manage these areas more sympathetically for the benefit of more species. This does not mean that all species will thrive in cities and heavily modified environments – there will always be a need for conservation reserves – but it throws the wilderness-versus-city dichotomy into question.

We need greater awareness of the nature we already share our cities with. Deliberate encouragement such as greener building and urban design that encourages wildlife to return and flourish would substantially benefit humans and other species alike. We are a part of and dependent upon nature, and as such should celebrate and seek to re-establish these vital connections.
The Conversation