Category Archives: Publications

Diversity in Australia’s tropical savannas: An integrative taxonomic revision of agamid lizards from the genera Amphibolurus and Lophognathus (Lacertilia: Agamidae)

Authors: Jane Melville, Euan G Ritchie, Stephanie N J Chapple, Richard E Glor And James A Schulte II

Published in: Memoirs of Museum Victoria, volume 77

Abstract

The taxonomy of many of Australia’s agamid lizard genera remains unresolved because morphological characters have proved to be unreliable across numerous lineages. We undertook a morphological study and integrated this with a recent genetic study to resolve long-standing taxonomic problems in three genera of large-bodied Australian agamid lizards: Amphibolurus, Gowidon and Lophognathus. We had broad geographic sampling across genera, including all currently recognised species and subspecies.

Using an integrative taxonomic approach, incorporating mitochondrial (ND2) and nuclear (RAG1) genetic data, and our morphological review, we found that both generic and species-level taxonomic revisions were required. We revise generic designations, creating one new genus (Tropicagama gen. nov.) and confirming the validity of Gowidon, giving a total of four genera. In addition, we describe a new species (Lophognathus horneri sp. nov.) and reclassify two other species.

Our results provide a significant step forward in the taxonomy of some of Australia’s most iconic and well-known lizards and provide a clearer understanding of biogeographic patterns across Australia’s monsoonal and arid landscapes.

Melville J, Ritchie EG, Chapple SNJ, Glor RE Schulte II JA (2018) Diversity in Australia’s tropical savannas: An integrative taxonomic revision of agamid lizards from the genera Amphibolurus and Lophognathus (Lacertilia: Agamidae). Memoirs of Museum Victoria PDF DOI

Towards meaningful monitoring: A case study of a threatened rodent

Authors: Hayley M Geyle, Gurutzeta Guillera‐Arroita, Hugh F Davies, Ronald S C Firth, Brett P Murphy, Dale G Nimmo, Euan G Ritchie, John C Z Woinarski, and Emily Nicholson

Published in: Austral Ecology

Abstract

Detecting trends in species’ distribution and abundance are essential for conserving threatened species, and depend upon effective monitoring programmes. Despite this, monitoring programmes are often designed without explicit consideration of their ability to deliver the information required by managers, such as their power to detect population changes.

Here, we demonstrate the use of existing data to support the design of monitoring programmes aimed at detecting declines in species occupancy. We used single‐season occupancy models and baseline data to gain information on variables affecting the occupancy and detectability of the threatened brush‐tailed rabbit‐rat Conilurus penicillatus (Gould 1842) on the Tiwi Islands, Australia. This information was then used to estimate the survey effort required to achieve sufficient power to detect changes in occupancy of different magnitudes.

We found that occupancy varied spatially, driven primarily by habitat (canopy height and cover, distance to water) and fire history across the landscape. Detectability varied strongly among seasons, and was three times higher in the late dry season (July–September), compared to the early dry season (April–June). Evaluation of three monitoring scenarios showed that conducting surveys at times when detectability is highest can lead to a substantial improvement in our ability to detect declines, thus reducing the survey effort and costs.

Our study highlights the need for careful consideration of survey design related to the ecology of a species, as it can lead to substantial cost savings and improved insight into species population change via monitoring.

Geyle HM, Guillera-Arroita G, Davies HF, Firth RSC, Murphy BP, Nimmo DG, Ritchie EG, Woinarski JCZ, Nicholson E (2018) Towards meaningful monitoring: A case study of a threatened rodent. Austral Ecology, PDF DOI

Continental patterns in the diet of a top predator: Australia’s dingo

Authors: Tim S Doherty, Naomi E Davis, Chris R Dickman, David M Forsyth, Mike Letnic, Dale G Nimmo, Russell Palmer, Euan G Ritchie, Joe Benshemesh, Glenn Edwards, Jenny Lawrence, Lindy Lumsden, Charlie Pascoe, Andy Sharp, Danielle Stokeld, Cecilia Myers, Georgeanna Story, Paul Story, Barbara Triggs, Mark Venosta, Mike Wysong, and Thomas M Newsome

Published in: Mammal Review

Abstract

Conserving large carnivores is controversial because they can threaten wildlife, human safety, and livestock production. Since large carnivores often have large ranges, effective management requires knowledge of how their ecology and functional roles vary biogeographically.

We examine continental‐scale patterns in the diet of the dingo – Australia’s largest terrestrial mammalian predator. We describe and quantify how dingo dietary composition and diversity vary with environmental productivity and across five bioclimatic zones: arid, semi‐arid, tropical, sub‐tropical, and temperate.

Based on 73 published and unpublished data sets from throughout the continent, we used multivariate linear modelling to assess regional trends in the occurrence of nine food groups (arthropods, birds, reptiles, European rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus, medium‐sized (25–125 kg) and large (169–825 kg) exotic ungulates (including livestock), and other small (<0.5 kg) medium‐sized (0.5–6.9 kg) and large (≥7 kg) mammals) in dingo diets. We also assessed regional patterns in the dietary occurrence of livestock and the relationship between dietary occurrence of rabbits and small, medium‐sized and large mammals.

Dingoes eat at least 229 vertebrate species (66% mammals, 22% birds, 11% reptiles, and 1% other taxa). Dietary composition varied across bioclimatic zones, with dingo diets in the arid and semi‐arid zones (low‐productivity sites) having the highest occurrence of arthropods, reptiles, birds, and rabbits. Medium‐sized mammals occurred most frequently in temperate and sub‐tropical zone diets (high‐productivity sites), large mammals least in the arid and sub‐tropical zones, and livestock most in the arid and tropical zones. The frequency of rabbits in diets was negatively correlated with that of medium‐sized, but not small or large mammals.

Dingoes have a flexible and generalist diet that differs among bioclimatic zones and with environmental productivity in Australia. Future research should focus on examining how dingo diets are affected by local prey availability and human‐induced changes to prey communities.

Doherty TS, Davis NE, Dickman CR, Forsyth DM, Letnic M, Nimmo DG, Palmer R, Ritchie EG, Benshemesh J, Edwards G, Lawrence J, Lumsden L, Pascoe C, Sharp A, Stokeld D, Myers C, Story G, Story P, Triggs B, et al. (2018) Continental patterns in the diet of a top predator: Australia’s dingo, Mammal Review, PDF DOI

Species definitions shape policy

Authors: Euan G Ritchie, Bradley P Smith, Lily M van Eeden, and Dale G Nimmo

Published in: Science, volume 361, issue 6,409 (September 2018)

The names we assign to organisms, and why, have important ramifications for our understanding of Earth’s diversity and, more practically, how it is managed. For example, wolves, coyotes, domestic dogs, and other canids are often considered distinct (1), but their members can, and frequently do, interbreed (2). Differing concepts of species—which might take into account morphology, ecology, behaviour, genetics, or evolutionary history (3) —could describe canids as very few or many species, depending on which concepts are used and how strictly they are applied. Which definition scientists adopt can have political and ecological consequences.

The dingo (Canis dingo) has traditionally been considered native in Australia, given evidence of its presence before the year 1400 (4) and indications that it has lived in Australia for at least 5,000 years (5). This designation meant that Western Australia had to have a management strategy in place for the dingo, along with other native fauna. However, a recent paper (6) argues that dingoes are in fact C. familiaris because they don’t satisfy zoological nomenclature protocols nor sufficiently differ genetically or morphologically from other canids, including domestic dogs.

The Western Australian government cited this work in justifying its recent decision to declare the dingo a non-native species under the state’s Biodiversity Conservation Act (BCA) (7). The new order removesthe government requirement to manage the species. As a result, dingoes can now be killed anywhere in the state without a BCA license. A potential increase in lethal control of dingoes could have dire consequences for Australia’s ecosystems. The dingo is Australia’s largest terrestrial top predator (adults typically weigh 15 to 20 kg (8)), it fulfils a crucial ecological role, and it has strong cultural significance for Australia’s Indigenous people (8).

Taxonomy serves a critical purpose for cataloguing and conserving biodiversity, but different interpretations and applications of species concepts can affect management decisions. Policy-makers may use the interpretations that justify their preferred values, such as prioritizing livestock more than biodiversity protection. It is therefore imperative that scientists carefully engage in the policy decision-making process. Scientists must work with policy-makers to convey the multiple dimensions and values that can affect species delineation and make clear the potential consequences of applying such classifications.

  1.  J.Clutton-Brocketal.,Bull.Br.Mus.Nat.Hist.Zool. 29,117 (1976).
  2. Z.Fanetal.,Gen.Res.26,163(2016).
  3. F.E.Zachos, Mammal Rev.10.1111/mam.12121(2018).
  4. Department of the Environment and Energy, Australian Government, “Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)” (1999); http://www.environment.gov.au/epbc
  5. K.M.Cairns, A.N.Wilton, Genetica 144,553(2016).
  6. S.M.Jackson et al., Zootaxa 4317,201(2017).
  7. M.Bamford, “Dingoes to remain classified as non-native wild dogs under reform to Western Australian law,” ABC News (2018); http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-28/dingoes-will-no-longer-be-native-animals-in-western-australia/10172448
  8. M.Letnic et al., Biol.Rev. 87,390(2012).

Ritchie EG, Smith BP, van Eeden LM, Nimmo DG (2018) Species definitions shape policy, Science PDF DOI

Expanding the role of targets in conservation policy

Authors: Tim S Doherty, Lucie M Bland Brett A Bryan, Timothy Neale, Emily Nicholson, Euan G Ritchie, and Don A Driscoll

Published in: Trends in Ecology & Evolution

Conservation targets perform beneficial auxiliary functions that are rarely acknowledged, including raising awareness, building partnerships, promoting investment, and developing new knowledge. Building on these auxiliary functions could enable more rapid progress towards current targets and inform the design of future targets.

Doherty TS, Bland LM, Bryan BA, Neale T, Nicholson E, Ritchie EG, Driscoll DA (2018) Expanding the Role of Targets in Conservation Policy, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, PDF DOI 

Carnivore conservation needs evidence-based livestock protection

Authors: Lily M van Eeden, Ann Eklund, Jennifer R B Miller, José Vicente López-Bao, Guillaume Chapron, Mikael R Cejtin, Mathew S Crowther, Christopher R Dickman, Jens Frank, Miha Krofel, David W Macdonald, Jeannine McManus, Tara K Meyer, Arthur D Middleton, Thomas M Newsome, William J Ripple, Euan G Ritchie, Oswald J Schmitz, Kelly J Stoner, Mahdieh Tourani, Adrian Treves

Published in: PloS Biology

Abstract

Carnivore predation on livestock often leads people to retaliate. Persecution by humans has contributed strongly to global endangerment of carnivores. Preventing livestock losses would help to achieve three goals common to many human societies: preserve nature, protect animal welfare, and safeguard human livelihoods.

Between 2016 and 2018, four independent reviews evaluated >40 years of research on lethal and nonlethal interventions for reducing predation on livestock. From 114 studies, we find a striking conclusion: scarce quantitative comparisons of interventions and scarce comparisons against experimental controls preclude strong inference about the effectiveness of methods.

For wise investment of public resources in protecting livestock and carnivores, evidence of effectiveness should be a prerequisite to policy making or large-scale funding of any method or, at a minimum, should be measured during implementation.

An appropriate evidence base is needed, and we recommend a coalition of scientists and managers be formed to establish and encourage use of consistent standards in future experimental evaluations.

van Eeden LM, Eklund A, Miller JRB, López-Bao JV, Chapron G, Cejtin MR, Crowther MS, Dickman CR, Frank J, Krofel M, Macdonald DW, McManus J, Meyer TK, Middleton AD, Newsome TM, Ripple WJ, Ritchie EG, Schmitz OJ, Stoner KJ, Tourani M, Treveset A (2018) Carnivore conservation needs evidence-based livestock protection, PLOS Biology PDF DOI 

The Conversation: A numbers game: killing rabbits to conserve native mammals

Controlling rabbit populations has a key role in conserving Australia’s native plants and animals

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Damien Fordham (University of Adelaide), and Miguel Lurgi, (Centre national de la recherche scientifique)

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

Invasive species have a devastating effect on biodiversity. In Australia, introduced red foxes and feral cats have been implicated in the majority of the extinctions of the native mammal fauna, which has been decimated since European arrival.

But there’s a herbivore that also causes eco-catastrophe. Rabbits both compete with native animals for food and shelter and act as easy prey for abundant populations of cats and foxes. By over-grazing vegetation and reducing habitat complexity, they make hunting easier for introduced predators.

Food webs are complex. Because of this, once an invasive species is embedded in a food web, simply eradicating them without considering the potential knock-on effects to other species they interact with, could cause unintended and undesirable consequences. We modelled different rates of rabbit population reduction to assess what level of control might be best for aiding the conservation of native mammals and not causing negative outcomes.

Rabbit numbers boom and crash

Rabbits, famously, reproduce rapidly and can cope with a relatively high predation rate. This can cause “hyper-predation”, where rabbit-inflated cat and fox populations indirectly increase the predation pressure on native mammals. This is especially so when rabbit populations intermittently crash due to, for example, extreme environmental events (like severe and prolonged droughts) or disease. This causes predators to switch their diet and eat more native mammals.

This logically suggests that reducing rabbit numbers might thus help reduce cat and fox populations, by removing their abundant prey. Collectively this should benefit native plants and animals, including many threatened mammal species. However, ecosystem and pest management is a complex game.

When controlling rabbits we need to look beyond one or two species. We should consider the potential consequences for the entire ecological community, which ultimately depend on how changes in one species percolate through the network of ecological interactions between them.

Our new research, recently published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, set out to examine these questions in more detail. We consider other key players in Australia’s arid regions, such as kangaroos and dingoes, when looking at the effects of rabbit control on small native mammals. Our aim was to provide a better understanding of how changes in rabbit populations might affect other species via the food web.

We developed a multi-species ecological network model to describe and quantify how changing rabbit abundance can affect species on different feeding levels. In addition to rabbits, small native mammals, and mesopredators (cats and foxes), our model also considers apex predators (dingo) and large herbivores (kangaroo) as part of the Australian arid food web. This model allowed us to examine changes in predator-prey interactions (including potential prey switching and hyper-predation) and how these could affect the survival of native prey through time.

We found that removing rabbits at rates between 30-40% appeared to benefit small mammals. This is approximately the rate at which rabbits are currently managed in Australia using biocontrol agents (introduced diseases).

Rabbit control in Australia typically involves a “press and pulse” approach. Rabbit populations are suppressed via biocontrol (press) and periods of warren destruction and poisoning (pulse). Finding that reducing rabbit populations by around 40% seems most beneficial to small mammals is important, as it informs how and when we combine these strategies.

The 40% rate corresponds well with the disease-induced (press) mortality rate in rabbit populations due to rabbit haemorrhagic disease and myxomatosis. These are the primary biocontrol agents used in arid Australia to control rabbit populations.

Our study supports rabbit-reduction strategies that involve sustained “press” control, that kill a moderate portion of a rabbit population, with less frequent removal at higher proportions of the population.

To effectively manage invasive species, it’s important to focus on entire communities. Targeting single species might not be enough – every animal exists within a complex web of interactions.

There has been much focus by the current government on controlling feral cats, as a way to conserve many of Australia’s unique and threatened mammal species.

However, more focus could be devoted to protecting habitat cover and complexity, by reducing the land clearing and over-grazing that makes hunting easier. We can also manage rabbits sensibly to reduce competition for resources, and indirectly control cats and foxes.
The Conversation