Category Archives: Research

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


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 


The Conversation: Invasive predators are eating the world’s animals to extinction – and the worst is close to home

By Tim Doherty (Deakin University), Chris Dickman (University of Sydney), Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University),  Euan Ritchie (Deakin University) and Al Glen (Landcare Research, New Zealand).

Feral cats are a major driver of global biodiversity loss, contributing to 26% of bird, mammal and reptile extinctions. Image credit: Mark Marathon via Wikimedia Commons

Feral cats are a major driver of global biodiversity loss, contributing to 26% of bird, mammal and reptile extinctions. Image credit: Mark Marathon via Wikimedia Commons

Invasive species are a threat to wildlife across the globe – and invasive, predatory mammals are particularly damaging.

Our research, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that these predators – cats, rats and foxes, but also house mice, possums and many others – have contributed to around 60% of bird, mammal and reptile extinctions. The worst offenders are feral cats, contributing to over 60 extinctions.

So how can we stop these mammals eating away at our threatened wildlife?

Counting the cost

Our study revealed that invasive predators are implicated in 87 bird, 45 mammal and 10 reptile extinctions — 58% of these groups’ contemporary extinctions worldwide.

Invasive predators also threaten 596 species classed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. Combined, the affected species include 400 birds, 189 mammals and 149 reptiles.

Twenty-three of the critically endangered species are classed as “possibly extinct”, so the number of extinctions above is likely to be an underestimate.

Until now, these shocking statistics have been unknown, and the heavy toll of invasive predators on native biodiversity grossly underappreciated. Species extinctions attributed to invasive predators include the Hawaiian rail (Zapornia sandwichensis) and Australia’s lesser bilby (Macrotis leucura).

Who are the worst offenders?

We found that three canids (including the red fox and feral dogs), seven members of the weasel family or mustelids (such as stoats), five rodents, two primates, two mongooses, two marsupials and nine species from other families negatively impact threatened species. Some of these species, such as hedgehogs and brushtail possums, don’t immediately spring to mind as predators, yet they are known to prey on many threatened species.

Feral cats threaten the most species overall (430), including 63 that have become extinct. This equates to one-quarter of all bird, mammal and reptile extinctions – making the feral cat arguably the most damaging invasive species for animal biodiversity worldwide.

Five species of introduced rodent collectively threaten 420 species, including 75 extinctions. While we didn’t separate out the impacts of individual rodent species, previous work shows that black rats (Rattus rattus) threaten the greatest number of species, followed by brown rats (R. norvegicus) and Pacific rats (R. exulans).

The humble house mouse (Mus musculus) is another interesting case. Despite their small size, house mice have been recorded eating live chicks of albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters.

Other predators that threaten large numbers of species are the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), pig (Sus scrofa), small Indian mongoose (Herpestes auropunctatus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and stoat (Mustela erminea).

Island species most at risk

Species found only on islands (insular endemics) account for 81% of the threatened species at risk from predators.

The isolation of many islands and a lack of natural predators mean that insular species are often naive about new predators and lack appropriate defensive responses. This makes them highly vulnerable to being eaten and in turn suffering rapid population decline or, worse, extinction. The high extinction rates of ground-dwelling birds in Hawaii and New Zealand — both of which lack native mammalian predators — are well-known examples.

Accordingly, the regions where the predators threatened the greatest number of species were all dominated by islands – Central America and the Caribbean, islands of the Pacific, the Madagascar region, New Zealand and Hawaii.

Conversely, the continental regions of North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia contain comparatively few species threatened by invasive predators. While Australia is a continent, it is also an island, where large numbers of native birds and mammals are threatened by cats and foxes.

Managing menacing mammals

Understanding and mitigating the impact of invasive mammal predators is essential for reducing the rate of global biodiversity loss.

Because most of the threatened species studied here live on islands, managing invasive predators on islands should be a global conservation priority. Invasive predators occur on hundreds of islands and predator control and eradication are costly exercises. Thus, it is important to prioritise island eradications based on feasibility, cost, likelihood of success and potential benefits.

On continents or large islands where eradications are difficult, other approaches are needed. This includes predator-proof fencing, top-predator restoration and conservation, lethal control, and maintenance of habitat structure.

Despite the shocking statistics we have revealed, there remain many unknowns. For example, only around 40% of reptile species have been assessed for the Red List, compared to 99% for birds and mammals. Very little is known about the impact of invasive predators on invertebrate species.

We expect that the number of species affected by invasive predators will climb as more knowledge becomes available.

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

Concordance in phylogeography and ecological niche modelling identify dispersal corridors for reptiles in arid Australia

Authors: Jane Melville, Margaret L Haines, Joshua Hale, Stephanie Chapple and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Journal of Biogeography (early access)


Using the rock-specialist agamid Ctenophorus caudicinctus as a model, we test hypothesized biogeographical dispersal corridors for lizards in the Australian arid zone (across the western sand deserts), and assess how these dispersal routes have shaped phylogeographical structuring in arid and semi-arid Australia.

We sequenced a c. 1400 bp fragment of mtDNA (ND2) for 134 individuals of C. caudicinctus as well as a subset of each of the mtDNA clades for five nuclear loci (BDNF, BACH1, GAPD, NTF3, and PRLR). We used phylogenetic methods to assess biogeographical patterns within C. caudicinctus, including relaxed molecular clock analyses to estimate divergence times. Ecological niche modelling (Maxent) was employed to estimate the current distribution of suitable climatic envelopes for each lineage.

Phylogenetic analyses identified two deeply divergent mtDNA clades within C. caudicinctus – an eastern and western clade – separated by the Western Australian sand deserts. However, divergences pre-date the Pleistocene sand deserts. Phylogenetic analyses of the nuclear DNA data sets generally support major mtDNA clades, suggesting past connections between the western C. c. caudicinctus populations in far eastern Pilbara (EP) and the lineages to the east of the sand deserts. Ecological niche modelling supports the continued suitability of climatic conditions between the Central Ranges and the far EP for C. c. graafi.

Estimates of lineage ages provide evidence of divergence between eastern and western clades during the Miocene with subsequent secondary contact during the Pliocene. Our results suggest that this secondary contact occurred via dispersal between the Central Ranges and the far EP, rather than the more southerly Giles Corridor. These events precede the origins of the western sand deserts and divergence patterns instead appear associated with Miocene and Pliocene climate change.

Melville J, Haines ML, Hale J, Chapple S, Ritchie EG (2016) Concordance in phylogeography and ecological niche modelling identify dispersal corridors for reptiles in arid Australia. Journal of Biogeography PDF DOI


Fire severity and fire-induced landscape heterogeneity affect arboreal mammals in fire-prone forests

Authors: Evelyn K Chia, Michelle Bassett, Dale G Nimmo, Steve W J Leonard, Euan G Ritchie, Michael F Clarke and Andrew F Bennett

Published in: Ecoshere, volume 6, issue 10 (October 2015)


We examined the role of topography, fire history and fire sensitivity on the occurrence of arboreal mammals 2 to 3 years after wildfire in temperate Eucalypt forests. Image credit: Elizabeth Donoghue via Flickr.


In fire-prone regions, wildfire influences spatial and temporal patterns of landscape heterogeneity. The likely impacts of climate change on the frequency and intensity of wildfire highlights the importance of understanding how fire-induced heterogeneity may affect different components of the biota.

Here, we examine the influence of wildfire, as an agent of landscape heterogeneity, on the distribution of arboreal mammals in fire-prone forests in south-eastern Australia.

First, we used a stratified design to examine the role of topography, and the relative influence of fire severity and fire history, on the occurrence of arboreal mammals 2–3 years after wildfire. Second, we investigated the influence of landscape context on the occurrence of arboreal mammals at severely burnt sites. Forested gullies supported a higher abundance of arboreal mammals than slopes.

Fire severity was the strongest influence, with abundance lower at severely burnt than unburnt sites. The occurrence of mammals at severely burned sites was influenced by landscape context: abundance increased with increasing amount of unburnt and understorey-only burnt forest within a one kilometre radius.

These results support the hypothesis that unburnt forest and moist gullies can serve as refuges for fauna in the post-fire environment and assist recolonization of severely burned forest. They highlight the importance of spatial heterogeneity created by wildfire and the need to incorporate spatial aspects of fire regimes (e.g. creation and protection of refuges) for fire management in fire-prone landscapes.

Chia EK, Bassett M, Nimmo DG, Leonard SWJ, Ritchie EG, Clarke MF, Bennett AF (2015) Fire severity and fire-induced landscape heterogeneity affect arboreal mammals in fire-prone forests, Ecosphere, 6:10 PDF DOI

Fire affects microhabitat selection, movement patterns, and body condition of an Australian rodent (Rattus fuscipes)

Authors: Amber Fordyce, Bronwyn A Hradsky, Euan G Ritchie, And Julian Di Stefano

Published in: Journal of Mammalogy, October 2015 (online)


Resource selection by animals influences individual fitness, the abundance of local populations, and the distribution of species. Further, the degree to which individuals select particular resources can be altered by numerous factors including competition, predation, and both natural- and human-induced environmental change. Understanding the influence of such factors on the way animals use resources can guide species conservation and management in changing environments.

In this study, we investigated the effects of a prescribed fire on small-scale (microhabitat) resource selection, abundance, body condition, and movement pathways of a native Australian rodent, the bush rat (Rattus fuscipes). Using a before-after, control-impact design, we gathered data from 60 individuals fitted with spool and line tracking devices.

In unburnt forest, selection of resources by bush rats was positively related to rushes, logs and complex habitat, and negatively related to ferns and litter. Fire caused selection for spreading grass, rushes, and complex habitat to increase relative to an unburnt control location. At the burnt location after the fire, rats selected patches of unburnt vegetation, and no rats were caught at a trapping site where most of the understory had been burnt. The fire also reduced bush rat abundance and body condition and caused movement pathways to become more convoluted. After the fire, some individuals moved through burnt areas but the majority of movements occurred within unburnt patches.

The effects of fire on bush rat resource selection, movement, body condition, and abundance were likely driven by several linked factors including limited access to shelter and food due to the loss of understory vegetation and heightened levels of perceived predation risk.

Our findings suggest the influence of prescribed fire on small mammals will depend on the resulting mosaic of burnt and unburnt patches and how well this corresponds to the resource requirements of particular species.

Fordyce A, Hradsky BA, Ritchie EG, Di Stefano J (2015) Fire affects microhabitat selection, movement patterns, and body condition of an Australian rodent (Rattus fuscipes), Journal of Mammalogy PDF DOI

Predators help protect carbon stocks in blue carbon ecosystems

Authors: Trisha B Atwood, Rod M Connolly, Euan G Ritchie, Catherine E Lovelock,
Michael R Heithaus, Graeme C Hays, James W Fourqurean and Peter I Macreadie

Published in: Nature Climate Change, September 2015

Tiger Shark

Tiger sharks in Shark Bay, Western Australia, create a landscape of fear where sea turtles and dugongs preferentially forage in seagrass microhabitats that are lower in predation risk and have allowed Cabon stocks. Image credit Albert Kok via Wikimedia Commons.


Predators continue to be harvested unsustainably throughout most of the Earth’s ecosystems.

Recent research demonstrates that the functional loss of predators could have far-reaching consequences on carbon cycling and, by implication, our ability to ameliorate climate change impacts. Yet the influence of predators on carbon accumulation and preservation in vegetated coastal habitats (that is, salt marshes, seagrass meadows and mangroves) is poorly understood, despite these being some of the Earth’s most vulnerable and carbon-rich ecosystems.

Here we discuss potential pathways by which trophic downgrading affects carbon capture, accumulation and preservation in vegetated coastal habitats.

We identify an urgent need for further research on the influence of predators on carbon cycling in vegetated coastal habitats, and ultimately the role that these systems play in climate change mitigation.

There is, however, sufficient evidence to suggest that intact predator populations are critical to maintaining or growing reserves of ‘blue carbon’ (carbon stored in coastal or marine ecosystems), and policy and management need to be improved to reflect these realities.

Atwood TB, Connolly RM, Ritchie EG, Lovelock, CE, Heithaus MR, Hays GC, Fourqurean JM, Macreadie PI (2015) Predators help protect carbon stocks in blue carbon ecosystems, Nature Climate Change PDF DOI