Category Archives: Publications

Communication: Science censorship is a global issue

Authors: Euan G Ritchie, Don A Driscoll and Martine Maron

Published in: Nature, volume 542, number 7640 (February 2017)

Government gagging of scientists is a slippery slope towards removing evidence from public debate.

Government gagging of scientists is a slippery slope towards removing evidence from public debate.

President Donald Trump issued an order on 23 January to effectively gag US government scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture from communicating with the media and the public (see Nature 54210112017). Regrettably, suppression of public scientific information is already the norm, or is being attempted, in many countries (see, for example, We fear that such gagging orders could encourage senior bureaucrats to use funding as a tool with which to rein in academic freedoms.

In Australia, public servants must abide by codes of conduct for communication that restrict them from contributing scientific evidence to public debates. Allegations emerged in 2011 that an Australian state government had threatened to stop funding university scientists who spoke out against cattle grazing in national parks, despite peer-reviewed evidence that this could damage a fragile alpine ecosystem and was unlikely to reduce fire risk as claimed (see also Nature 4714222011).

The response of scientists to this type of coercion has been to share scientific information widely and openly using such legal means as social media to defend facts and transparency (see Nature 5414352017). Academics and scientific associations are among the last still free to speak, so must continue to do so to protect open discussion of government policies.

Ritchie EG, Driscoll DA, Maron M (2017) Communication: Science censorship is a global issue, Nature 542 DOI 

The case for a dingo reintroduction in Australia remains strong: a reply to Morgan et al., 2016

Authors: Thomas M Newsome, Aaron C Greenville, Mike Letnic, Euan G Ritchie and Christopher R Dickman

Published in: Food Webs (early view)


We challenge the arguments of Morgan et al. in regard to the efficacy of dingo reintroductions Image credit: Daryll Bellingham via Flickr

In their paper “Trophic cascades and dingoes in Australia: does the Yellowstone wolf-elk- willow model apply?” Morgan et al. (2016) argue that the case for dingo reintroduction in Australia, based on trophic cascade theory, is “weak”. They conclude that, “because of climate instability, the strong top-down trophic responses reported from the Yellowstone National Park case study are unlikely to apply in arid and semi-arid south-eastern Australia and are speculative at best”.

We agree that dingoes (Canis dingo) are likely to exert different effects on ecological communities in Australia as compared to grey wolves (Canis lupus) in North America. A comparison of body sizes and dietary preferences between these canid species alludes to their functional ecological differences. Differences in the biological communities and climate between Yellowstone National Park and Australia also prevent direct comparisons of trophic cascade-processes between the two regions. These facts should not, however, preclude examination of the efficacy and consequences of dingo reintroductions in Australia.

We contend that Morgan et al. (2016):

  1. misunderstand the circumstances that make trophic cascades important to consider in Australia,
  2. do not acknowledge key reasons why dingo reintroduction has been proposed,
  3. haven’t recognised the different pathways by which dingoes could influence ecosystems via trophic cascades, and
  4. do not fully acknowledge literature and theory relevant to understanding the interplay of bottom-up and top-down processes in Australia.

Our reply is intended to assist managers and decision makers when deciding whether or not to reintroduce dingoes into Australian ecosystems.

Newsmen TM, Greenville AC, Letnic M, Ritchie EG, Dickman CR (2017) The case for a dingo reintroduction in Australia remains strong: A reply to Morgan et al., 2016, Food Webs, PDF DOI

Enumerating a continental-scale threat: How many feral cats are in Australia?

Authors: S Legge, BP Murphy, H McGregor, JCZ Woinarski, J Augusteyn, G Ballard, M Baseler, T Buckmaster, CR Dickman, T Doherty, G Edwards, T Eyre, BA Fancourt, D Ferguson, DM Forsyth, WL Geary, M Gentle, G Gillespie, L Greenwood, R Hohnen, S Hume, CN Johnson, M Maxwell, PJ McDonald, K Morris, K Moseby, T Newsome, D Nimmo, R Paltridge, D Ramsey, J Read, A Rendall, M Rich, E Ritchie, J Rowland, J Short, D Stoked, DR Sutherland, AF Wayne, L Woodford and F Zewe.

Published in: Biological Conservation


Feral cats (Felis catus) have devastated wildlife globally. In Australia, feral cats are implicated in most recent mammal extinctions and continue to threaten native species. Cat control is a high-profile priority for Australian policy, research and management.

To develop the evidence-base to support this priority, we first review information on cat presence/absence on Australian islands and mainland cat-proof exclosures, finding that cats occur across >99.8% of Australia’s land area. Next, we collate 91 site-based feral cat density estimates in Australia and examine the influence of environmental and geographic influences on density.

We extrapolate from this analysis to estimate that the feral cat population in natural environments fluctuates between 1.4 million (95% confidence interval: 1.0–2.3 million) after continent-wide droughts, to 5.6 million (95% CI: 2.5–11 million) after extensive wet periods. We estimate another 0.7 million feral cats occur in Australia’s highly modified environments (urban areas, rubbish dumps, intensive farms).

Feral cat densities are higher on small islands than the mainland, but similar inside and outside conservation land. Mainland cats reach highest densities in arid/semi-arid areas after wet periods. Regional variation in cat densities corresponds closely with attrition rates for native mammal fauna.

The overall population estimate for Australia’s feral cats (in natural and highly modified environments), fluctuating between 2.1 and 6.3 million, is lower than previous estimates, and Australian feral cat densities are lower than reported for North America and Europe. Nevertheless, cats inflict severe impacts on Australian fauna, reflecting the sensitivity of Australia’s native species to cats and reinforcing that policy, research and management to reduce their impacts is critical.

Legge, S, et al (2016) Enumerating a continental-scale threat: How many feral cats are in Australia? Biological Conservation PDF DOI


Impacts and management of feral cats Felis catus in Australia

Authors: Tim S Doherty, Chris R Dickman, Chris N Johnson, Sarah M Legge, Euan G Ritchie and John CZ Woinarski

Published in: Mammal Review (early view)


Feral cats are among the most damaging invasive species worldwide, and are implicated in many extinctions, especially in Australia, New Zealand and other islands. Understanding and reducing their impacts is a global conservation priority.

We review knowledge about the impacts and management of feral cats in Australia, and identify priorities for research and management.

In Australia, the most well understood and significant impact of feral cats is predation on threatened mammals. Other impacts include predation on other vertebrates, resource competition, and disease transmission, but knowledge of these impacts remains limited.

Lethal control is the most common form of management, particularly via specifically designed poison baits. Non-lethal techniques include the management of fire, grazing, food, and trophic cascades. Managing interactions between these processes is key to success.

Given limitations on the efficacy of feral cat management, conservation of threatened mammals has required the establishment of insurance populations on predator-free islands and in fenced mainland enclosures.

Research and management priorities are to: prevent feral cats from driving threatened species to extinction; assess the efficacy of new management tools; trial options for control via ecosystem management; and increase the potential for native fauna to coexist with feral cats.

Doherty TS, Dickman CR, Johnson CN, Legge SM, Ritchie EG, Woinarski JCZ (2016) Impacts and management of feral cats Felis catus in Australia. Mammal Review PDF DOI

Phylogeography of the antilopine wallaroos (Macropus antilopinus) across tropical northern Australia

Authors: Jessica J Wadley, Damien A Fordham, Vicki A Thomson, Euan G Ritchie and Jeremy J Austin

Published in: Ecology and Evolution (early view)


The distribution of antilopine wallaroo, Macropus antilopinus, is marked by a break in the species’ range between Queensland and the Northern Territory, coinciding with the Carpentarian barrier.

Previous work on M. antilopinus revealed limited genetic differentiation between the Northern Territory and Queensland M. antilopinus populations across this barrier. The study also identified a number of divergent lineages in the Northern Territory, but was unable to elucidate any geographic structure.

Here, we re-examine these results to (1) determine phylogeographic patterns across the range of M. antilopinus and (2) infer the biogeographic barriers associated with these patterns.

The tropical savannahs of northern Australia: from the Cape York Peninsula in the east, to the Kimberley in the west. We examined phylogeographic patterns in M. antilopinus using a larger number of samples and three mtDNA genes: NADH dehydrogenase subunit 2, cytochrome b, and the control region. Two datasets were generated and analyzed: (1) a subset of samples with all three mtDNA regions concatenated together and (2) all samples for just control region sequences that included samples from the previous study. Analysis included generating phylogenetic trees based on Bayesian analysis and intraspecific median-joining networks.

The contemporary spatial structure of M. antilopinus mtDNA lineages revealed five shallow clades and a sixth, divergent lineage. The genetic differences that we found between Queensland and Northern Territory M. antilopinus samples confirmed the split in the geographic distribution of the species. We also found weak genetic differentiation between Northern Territory samples and those from the Kimberley region of Western Australia, possibly due to the Kimberley Plateau–Arnhem Land barrier. Within the Northern Territory, two clades appear to be parapatric in the west, while another two clades are broadly sympatric across the Northern Territory. MtDNA diversity of M. antilopinus revealed an unexpectedly complex evolutionary history involving multiple sympatric and parapatric mtDNA clades across northern Australia.

These phylogeographic patterns highlight the importance of investigating genetic variation across distributions of species and integrating this information into biodiversity conservation.

Wadley JJ, Fordham DA, Thomson VA, Ritchie EG, Austin JJ (2016) Phylogeography of the antilopine wallaroo (Macropus antilopinus) across tropical northern Australia. Ecology and Evolution PDF DOI 


Trophic cascades in 3D: Network analysis reveals how apex predators structure ecosystems

Authors: Arian D Wallach, Anthony H Dekker, Miguel Lurgi, Jose M Montoya, Damien A Fordham and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Methods in Ecology and Evolution


Trophic cascade theory predicts that apex predators structure ecosystems by regulating mesopredator and herbivore abundance and behaviour. Studies on trophic cascades have typically focused on short linear chains of species interactions. A framework that integrates more realistic and complex interactions is needed to make broader predictions on ecosystem structuring.

Network analysis is used to study food webs and other types of species interaction networks. These often comprise large numbers of species but rarely account for multiple interaction types and strengths. Here we develop an intermediate complexity theoretical framework that allows specification of multiple interaction types and strengths for the study of trophic cascades. This ecological network is designed to suit data typically derived from field-based studies. The trophic cascade network contains fewer nodes than food webs, but provides semi-weighted directional links that enable different types of interactions to be included in a single model.

We use this trophic cascade network model to explore how an apex predator shapes ecosystem structure in an Australian arid ecosystem. We compared two networks that contrasted in the dominance of an apex predator, the dingo (Canis dingo), using published results ranking the direction and strength of key interactions. Nodes and links interacted dynamically to shape these networks. We examined how changes to an apex predator population affects ecosystem structure through their direct and indirect influences on different components of this ecological community.

Under strong apex predator influence, the network structure was denser and more complex, even, and top-down driven; and dingo predation and soil commensalism formed denser interactive modules. Under weak apex predator influence (e.g. reflecting predator control) the resulting network structure was frayed, with mesopredator predation and grazing forming modules.

Our study demonstrates that networks of intermediate complexity can provide a powerful tool for elucidating potential ecosystem-wide effects of apex predators, and predicting the consequences of management interventions such as predator control. Integrating trophic cascades, with their array of complex interactions, with the three-dimensional structure of ecological networks, has the potential to reveal ‘ecological architecture’ that neither captures on its own.

Wallach AD, Dekker AH, Lurgi M, Montoya JM, Fordham DA, Ritchie EG (2016) Trophic cascades in 3D: Network analysis reveals how apex predators structure ecosystems. Methods in Ecology and EvolutionPDF DOI

Invasive predators and global biodiversity loss

Authors: Tim S Doherty, Alistair S Glen, Dale G Nimmo, Euan G Ritchie and Chris R Dickman

Published in: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


Invasive species threaten biodiversity globally, and invasive mammalian predators are particularly damaging, having contributed to considerable species decline and extinction. We provide a global meta-analysis of these impacts and reveal their full extent.

Invasive predators are implicated in 87 bird, 45 mammal, and 10 reptile species extinctions — 58% of these groups’ contemporary extinctions worldwide. These figures are likely underestimated because 23 critically endangered species that we assessed are classed as “possibly extinct.”

Invasive mammalian predators endanger a further 596 species at risk of extinction, with cats, rodents, dogs, and pigs threatening the most species overall.

Species most at risk from predators have high evolutionary distinctiveness and inhabit insular environments. Invasive mammalian predators are therefore important drivers of irreversible loss of phylogenetic diversity worldwide.

That most impacted species are insular indicates that management of invasive predators on islands should be a global conservation priority. Understanding and mitigating the impact of invasive mammalian predators is essential for reducing the rate of global biodiversity loss.

Doherty TS, Glen AS, Nimmo DG, Ritchie EG, Dickman CR (2016) Invasive predators and global biodiversity loss. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences PDF DOI