Category Archives: Publications

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

Eradicating abundant invasive prey could cause unexpected and varied biodiversity outcomes: The importance of multispecies interactions

Authors: Miguel Lurgi, Euan G Ritchie, and Damien A Fordham

Published in: Journal of Applied Ecology

Abstract

Abundant and widely distributed invasive prey can negatively affect co‐occurring native species by competing for food and/or shelter, removing vegetation cover and reducing habitat complexity (changing predation risk), and by sustaining elevated abundances of invasive mesopredators. However, information regarding the community and trophic consequences of controlling invasive prey and their temporal dynamics remain poorly understood.

We used multispecies ecological network models to simulate the consequences of changing European rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus abundance in an arid mammalian community. We quantified how changes in the dominant prey (rabbits) affected multiple trophic levels, examining changes in predator–prey interactions through time and how they affected native prey persistence.

Our results suggest that removal of rabbits can benefit native biodiversity immediately at removal rates between 30% and 40%. However, beyond these levels, densities of small native mammals will decline in the short term. The processes underpinning these declines are: (a) increased competition for resources (vegetation) with kangaroos Macropus spp., whose numbers increase due to their release from competition with rabbits and (b) increased predation (prey switching) by feral cats Felis catus. Both effects are mediated by dingoes Canis dingo, a native apex predator.

Importantly, native mammal abundance recovers after a time delay, which is prolonged when high rates of rabbit control are applied. This is likely due to a reduction in hyperpredation by invasive feral cats and red foxes Vulpes vulpes following rabbit removal.

Continued eradication of rabbits in arid Australia will benefit native species due to a decrease in apparent competition for resources and by alleviating hyperpredation from invasive mesopredators. Furthermore, ecosystem‐level conservation benefits of reducing invasive prey abundance are as important as direct control of invasive mesopredators.

Synthesis and applications: Multispecies ecological network models provide wildlife managers with tools to better understand and predict the complex effects of species removal and control on both intact and modified ecosystems. Our results show that management of the Australian arid zone can benefit from controlling invasive prey as well as invasive predators. However, invasive species control can cause unexpected outcomes on native biodiversity. This extends to other systems where dominant prey may play fundamental roles in ecosystem structure and function.

Lurgi M, Ritchie EG, Fordham DA (2018) Eradicating abundant invasive prey could cause unexpected and varied biodiversity outcomes: The importance of multispecies interactions, Journal of Applied Ecology, PDF DOI 

Evaluating the efficacy of predator removal in a conflict-prone world

Authors: Robert J Lennox, Austin J Gallagher, Euan G Ritchie, and Steven J Cooke

Published in: Biological Conservation, volume 224 (August 2018)

Abstract

Predators shape ecosystem structure and function through their direct and indirect effects on prey, which permeate through ecological communities. Predators are often perceived as competitors or threats to human values or well-being. This conflict has persisted for centuries, often resulting in predator removal (i.e. killing) via targeted culling, trapping, poisoning, and/or public hunts. Predator removal persists as a management strategy but requires scientific evaluation to assess the impacts of these actions, and to develop a way forward in a world where human-predator conflict may intensify due to predator reintroduction and rewilding, alongside an expanding human population.

We reviewed literature investigating predator removal and focused on identifying instances of successes and failures. We found that predator removal was generally intended to protect domestic animals from depredation, to preserve prey species, or to mitigate risks of direct human conflict, corresponding to being conducted in farmland, wild land, or urban areas. Because of the different motivations for predator removal, there was no consistent definition of what success entailed so we developed one with which to assess studies we reviewed. Research tended to be retrospective and correlative and there were few controlled experimental approaches that evaluated whether predator removal met our definition of success, making formal meta-analysis impossible. Predator removal appeared to only be effective for the short-term, failing in the absence of sustained predator suppression. This means predator removal was typically an ineffective and costly approach to conflicts between humans and predators.

Management must consider the role of the predator within the ecosystem and the potential consequences of removal on competitors and prey. Simulations or models can be generated to predict responses prior to removing predators. We also suggest that alternatives to predator removal be further developed and researched.

Ultimately, humans must coexist with predators and learning how best to do so may resolve many conflicts.

Lennox RJ, Gallagher AJ, Ritchie EG, Cooke SJ (2018) Evaluating the efficacy of predator removal in a conflict-prone world, Biological Conservation, PDF DOI

Crowdfunded campaigns are conserving the Earth’s environment

Crowdfunded campaigns to save the orange-bellied parrot are a rare ray of hope. Image credit: Fatih Sam

By Eduardo Gallo-Cajiao (University of Queensland), Carla Archibald (University of Queensland), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Rachel Friedman (University of Queensland), Richard Fuller (The University of Queensland), Rochelle Steven (University of Queensland), and Tiffany Morrison (James Cook University)

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

If not for the public’s generosity, the iconic Statue of Liberty might not have the solid and impressive footing she does today. In the late 1800s, government funds for the monument were exhausted. Yet through a fundraising campaign, the New York World newspaper garnered support from over 160,000 residents to cover the pedestal costs.

Just as large monuments need solid bases to ensure their long-term existence, so too does the environment. In the case of nature conservation, it requires money to support diverse research projects, on-ground activities, and outreach aimed at protecting and managing species and habitats.

While the health of the environment continues to decline globally, in most regions government funding falls short of what is required to stem the losses. Crowdfunding plays an important and under-appreciated role for biodiversity conservation.

Our new research presents a global analysis of how crowdfunding, still a relatively novel and minor financial mechanism in the conservation community, is contributing to conservation around the world.

Show me the money. What’s being funded and why?

Crowdfunding offers a powerful mechanism for mobilising resources for conservation across borders. We recorded 577 conservation-oriented projects (from 72 crowdfunding platforms), which have raised around US$4.8 million since 2009. The people leading these projects were based in 38 countries, but projects took place across 80 countries.

This pattern has important implications for conservation, because there is often a mismatch between high-priority areas for global conservation and countries with the greatest financial and technical capacity. For instance, we discovered that a third of the projects were delivered in different countries to where their proponents were based. The USA, UK and Australia were the countries with the highest outflow of projects (“project exporters”). Indonesia, South Africa, Costa Rica and Mexico had the highest inflow (“project importers”).

Crowdfunding could be supporting conservation work of actors that do not have as much capacity for raising funds.

The people leading projects were primarily from non-governmental organisations (35%) or universities (30%), or were freelancers (26%). Importantly, among non-governmental organisations, we discovered organisations operating at sub-national levels proposed a majority of projects.

Additionally, crowdfunding for conservation is not all about research. While most of the projects we reviewed focused on research (40%), many tackled raising awareness of conservation-related issues (31%) or boots-on-the-ground activities (21%). This expands the sphere of anecdotal evidence and commentary about crowdfunding related to conservation, which has so far revolved around research. For the first time, we’ve systematically unpacked how these funds are being used for additional activities to support conservation.

Crowdfunding can also support innovative projects that traditional funding agencies deem too risky or unconventional. For example, one project supported buying and training two Maremma sheepdogs to protect penguins against predatory foxes in southeastern Australia. (That might sound familiar to those who’ve seen the movie Oddball.)

Such opportunities for innovation can have important consequences for conservation worldwide; crowdfunding could be considered an incubator for novel ideas before widespread dissemination.

More than half of the projects we recorded (around 58%) largely focused on species. These included a disproportionate number of threatened bird and mammal species.

Prominent projects to save orange-bellied parrots or Papua New Guinea’s endangered tree kangaroos are important success stories.

This is not to underplay crowdfunding’s importance for ecosystems – whether land-based (20%), marine (9%) or freshwater (4%). Crowfunding is supporting projects ranging from protection of wilderness areas in remote Tasmania to research informing the conservation of the Californian coast.

Crowdfunding benefits extend beyond dollars and cents

The amount of money for conservation via crowdfunding has so far been relatively modest compared to more traditional conservation finance mechanisms. However, the benefits of crowdfunding extend well beyond dollars and cents. Crowdfunding helps communicate environmental issues and empower researchers and communities.

The figure below shows the reach of a single tweet during the Big Roo Count campaign. It shows how conservation-related messages can spread widely and engage communities via social media.

Crowdfunding is an exciting new tool in the conservation toolbox. But, ultimately, traditional funding sources, like government agencies, still have a major role and duty to invest adequately in environmental protection and nature conservation. Considering the current extinction crisis, governments must avoid further outsourcing of such responsibilities.

The discussion over novel sources and recipients of conservation funding continues. At the same time, transparency and oversight remain critical for managing expectations and overall effectiveness of funding. Crowdfunding contributes one more building block to democratising conservation funding and increasing transparency.

The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of Edward Game.
The Conversation

Animal recognition and identification with deep convolutional neural networks for automated wildlife monitoring

Authors: Hung Nguyen, Sarah J Maclagan, Tu Dinh Nguyen, Thin Nguyen, Paul Flemons, Kylie Andrews, Euan G Ritchie, and Dinh Phung

Published in: 2017 IEEE International Conference on Data Science and Advanced Analytics

Abstract

Efficient and reliable monitoring of wild animals in their natural habitats is essential to inform conservation and management decisions. Automatic covert cameras or “camera traps” are being an increasingly popular tool for wildlife monitoring due to their effectiveness and reliability in collecting data of wildlife unobtrusively, continuously and in large volume. However, processing such a large volume of images and videos captured from camera traps manually is extremely expensive, time-consuming and also monotonous. This presents a major obstacle to scientists and ecologists to monitor wildlife in an open environment.

Leveraging on recent advances in deep learning techniques in computer vision, we propose in this paper a framework to build automated animal recognition in the wild, aiming at an automated wildlife monitoring system. In particular, we use a single-labeled dataset from Wildlife Spotter project, done by citizen scientists, and the state-of-the-art deep convo- lutional neural network architectures, to train a computational system capable of filtering animal images and identifying species automatically.

Our experimental results achieved an accuracy at 96.6% for the task of detecting images containing animal, and 90.4% for identifying the three most common species among the set of images of wild animals taken in South-central Victoria, Australia, demonstrating the feasibility of building fully automated wildlife observation. This, in turn, can therefore speed up research findings, construct more efficient citizen science- based monitoring systems and subsequent management decisions, having the potential to make significant impacts to the world of ecology and trap camera images analysis.

Nguyen H, Maclagan SJ, Nguyen TD, Nguyen T, Flemons P, Andrews K, Ritchie EG, Phung D (2017) Animal recognition and identification with deep convolutional neural networks for automated wildlife monitoring, 2017 IEEE International Conference on Data Science and Advanced Analytics PDF DOI 

Futurecasting ecological research: the rise of technoecology

Authors: Blake M Allan, Dale G Nimmo, Daniel Ierodiaconou, Jeremy VanDerWal, Lian Pin Koh, and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Ecosphere, volume 9, issue 5 (May 2018)

Abstract

Increasingly complex research questions and global challenges (e.g., climate change and biodiversity loss) are driving rapid development, refinement, and uses of technology in ecology. This trend is spawning a distinct sub‐discipline, here termed “technoecology.”

We highlight recent ground‐breaking and transformative technological advances for studying species and environments: bio‐batteries, low‐power and long‐range telemetry, the Internet of things, swarm theory, 3D printing, mapping molecular movement, and low‐power computers. These technologies have the potential to revolutionize ecology by providing “next‐generation” ecological data, particularly when integrated with each other, and in doing so could be applied to address a diverse range of requirements (e.g., pest and wildlife management, informing environmental policy and decision making).

Critical to technoecology’s rate of advancement and uptake by ecologists and environmental managers will be fostering increased interdisciplinary collaboration. Ideally, such partnerships will span the conception, implementation, and enhancement phases of ideas, bridging the university, public, and private sectors.

Allan BM, Nimmo DG, Ierodiaconou D, VanDerWal J, Koh LP, Ritchie EG (2018) Futurecasting ecological research: the rise of technoecology, Ecosphere PDF DOI

Don’t judge habitat on its novelty: Assessing the value of novel habitats for an endangered mammal in a peri-urban landscape

Authors: Sarah J Maclagan, Terry Coates, and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Biological Conservation, volume 223 (July 2018)

Abstract

Novel ecosystems are increasingly common worldwide, particularly in areas heavily impacted by humans such as urban and peri-urban landscapes. Consequently, interest in their potential contribution to biodiversity conservation is growing, including their ability to sustain populations of threatened species. However, few studies have explored whether novel habitats can support viable populations over time and how they compare to less modified, remnant habitats.

We investigated the capacity for novel habitats to support an endangered mammal, the southern brown bandicoot (Isoodon obesulus obesulus: Peramelidae), in a highly-modified landscape near Australia’s second largest city, Melbourne. We compared bandicoot abundance and body condition between five novel and two remnant sites, and examined whether novel sites support residency and key demographic processes necessary for bandicoot population persistence. We found that bandicoot abundance was higher at novel than remnant sites, with the highest abundance at the novel site with the most urbanised surroundings. Female body condition was similar between novel and remnant sites. The majority of bandicoots at novel sites were resident, and breeding activity, recruitment of first-year adults, and survival of mature adults were observed at all novel sites.

Our results demonstrate the potential significance of novel habitats for conserving threatened species within heavily-modified landscapes, and encourage us not to judge the quality of habitats on their novelty alone. Broadening our appreciation of the potential value of novel ecosystems could increase off-reserve species conservation opportunities, a key priority within the context of the Anthropocene and unprecedented global change and biodiversity loss.

Maclagan SJ, Coates T, Ritchie EG (2018) Don’t judge habitat on its novelty: Assessing the value of novel habitats for an endangered mammal in a peri-urban landscape, Biological Conservation PDF DOI