Category Archives: Publications

Making a new dog?

Authors: Thomas M Newsome, Peter J S Fleming, Christopher R Dickman, Tim S Doherty, William J Ripple, Euan G Ritchie, and Aaron J Wirsing

Published in: BioScience (early view)

Abstract

We are in the middle of a period of rapid and substantial environmental change. One impact of this upheaval is increasing contact between humans and other animals, including wildlife that take advantage of anthropogenic foods. As a result of increased interaction, the evolution and function of many species may be altered through time via processes including domestication and hybridization, potentially leading to speciation events.

We discuss the ecological and management importance of such possibilities, using gray wolves and other large carnivores as case studies.

Image caption: A hypothetical comparison of gray wolf (Canis lupus) ecological effects in wilderness areas (left) and human-modified systems (right) where there are abundant anthropogenic foods.

We identify five main ways that carnivores might be affected: changes to social structures, behavior and movement patterns, changes in survivorship across wild- to human-dominated environments, evolutionary divergence, and potential speciation.

As the human population continues to grow and urban areas expand while some large carnivore species reoccupy parts of their former distributions, there will be important implications for human welfare and conservation policy.

Thomas M Newsome, Peter J S Fleming, Christopher R Dickman, Tim S Doherty, William J Ripple, Euan G Ritchie, Aaron J Wirsing (2017) Making a New Dog? BioScience PDF DOI

 

Responses of invasive predators and native prey to a prescribed forest fire

Authors: Bronwyn A Hradsky, Craig Mildwaters, Euan G Ritchie, Fiona Christie, and Julian Di Stefano

Published in: Journal of Mammalogy (early view)

Abstract

Fire shapes biome distribution and community composition worldwide, and is extensively used as a management tool in flammable landscapes. There is growing concern, however, that fire could increase the vulnerability of native fauna to invasive predators.

We developed a conceptual model of the ways in which fire could influence predator–prey dynamics.

Using a before–after, control–impact experiment, we then investigated the short-term effects of a prescribed fire on 2 globally significant invasive mesopredators (red fox, Vulpes vulpes, and feral cat, Felis catus) and their native mammalian prey in a fire-prone forest of southeastern Australia. We deployed motion-sensing cameras to assess species occurrence, collected predator scats to quantify diet and prey choice, and measured vegetation cover before and after fire. We examined the effects of the fire at the scale of the burn block (1,190 ha), and compared burned forest to unburned refuges.

Pre-fire, invasive predators and large native herbivores were more likely to occur at sites with an open understory, whereas the occurrence of most small- and medium-sized native mammals was positively associated with understory cover. Fire reduced understory cover by more than 80%, and resulted in a 5-fold increase in the occurrence of invasive predators. Concurrently, relative consumption of medium-sized native mammals by foxes doubled, and selection of long-nosed bandicoots (Perameles nasuta) and short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) by foxes increased. Occurrence of bush rats (Rattus fuscipes) declined. It was unclear if fire also affected the occurrence of bandicoots or echidnas, as changes coincided with normal seasonal variations.

Overall, prescribed fire promoted invasive predators, while disadvantaging their medium-sized native mammalian prey. Further replication and longer-term experiments are needed before these findings can be generalized. Nonetheless, such interactions could pose a serious threat to vulnerable species such as critical weight range mammals. Integrated invasive predator and fire management are recommended to improve biodiversity conservation in flammable ecosystems.

Hradsky BA, Mildwaters C, Ritchie EG, Christie F, Di Stefano J (2017) Responses of invasive predators and native prey to a prescribed forest fire, Journal of Mammalogy PDF DOI

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, go.nature.com/2kr5dnd). 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 PDF 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)

dingofootprint

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.

Newsome 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

Abstract

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)

Abstract

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)

Abstract

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