Category Archives: Research

Topographic ruggedness and rainfall mediate geographic range contraction of a threatened marsupial predator

Authors: Harry A Moore, Judy A Dunlop, Leonie E Valentine, John C Z Woinarski, Euan G Ritchie, David M Watson, and Dale G Nimmo

Published in: Diversity and Distributions

Abstract

Aim: Species range contractions are increasingly common globally. The niche reduction hypothesis posits that geographic range contractions are often patterned across space owing to heterogeneity in threat impacts and tolerance. We applied the niche reduction hypothesis to the decline of a threatened marsupial predator across northern Australia, the northern quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus).

Location: Northern Australia.

Methods: We assembled a database containing 3,178 historic and contemporary records for northern quolls across the extent of their distribution dating between 1778 and 2019. Based on these records, we estimated changes in the geographic range of the northern quoll using α‐hulls across four main populations. We then examined how range contractions related to factors likely to mediate the exposure, susceptibility, or tolerance of northern quolls to threats.

Result: The extent of range contractions showed an east–west gradient, most likely reflecting the timing of spread of introduced cane toads (Rhinella marina). There were clear changes in environmental characteristics within the contemporary compared to the historic geographic range, with the most substantial occurring in populations that have suffered the greatest range contractions. The contemporary range is comprised of higher quality habitats (measured using environmental niche models), characterized by higher topographical ruggedness and annual rainfall, and reduced distance to water, compared to the historic range.

Main conclusions: Changes to range and niche likely reflect the capacity of complex habitats to ameliorate threats (namely predation and altered fire regimes), and access to resources that increase threat tolerance. This study highlights the multivariate nature of ecological refuges and the importance of high‐quality habitats for the persistence of species exposed to multiple threats. Our methods provide a useful framework which can be applied across taxa in providing valuable insight to management.

Moore HA, Dunlop JA, Valentine LE, Woinarski JCZ, Ritchie EG, Watson DM, Nimmo DG (2019) Topographic ruggedness and rainfall mediate geographic range contraction of a threatened marsupial predator. Diversity and Distributions PDF DOI

Life in linear habitats: the movement ecology of an endangered mammal in a peri‐urban landscape

Authors: Sarah J Maclagan, Terry Coates, Bronwyn A Hradsky, Ryan Butryn, and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Animal Conservation

Abstract

Animal movement can be significantly altered in human‐dominated landscapes such as urban and peri‐urban areas, where habitat is often fragmented and/or linear. Knowledge regarding how wildlife respond to anthropogenic change is vital for informing conservation efforts in such landscapes, including the design of nature reserves and wildlife corridors.

To better understand how threatened species persist and behave within human‐dominated landscapes, we examined the home range and space use of the nationally endangered southern brown bandicoot Isoodon obesulus obesulus in peri‐urban Melbourne, Australia’s second‐largest city. Specifically, we examined whether:

  • bandicoots were confined to linear strips of remnant vegetation or also made use of the broader highly modified landscape matrix;
  • the configuration of the linear vegetated strips affected home range shape; and
  • home range area differed between bandicoots living in linear strips and those in larger remnant habitat patches.

We found that:

  • 71% of adult males and 33% of adult females used the matrix, but non‐dispersing juveniles were entirely confined to the linear strips; males also travelled greater distances into the matrix (away from the vegetated strips) than females;
  • bandicoots had longer home ranges in narrower strips and males had longer home ranges than females; and
  • home range area for both sexes was smaller in linear strips than has been recorded in other studies in larger remnant habitats.

Our study highlights the importance of retaining narrow, fragmented and modified vegetation to accommodate threatened biodiversity within human‐dominated landscapes, but suggests the surrounding matrix may also offer important resources for adaptable species, such as bandicoots.

Supporting off‐reserve conservation of biodiversity in novel ecosystems is increasingly pertinent in our rapidly urbanizing world.

Maclagan SJ, Coates T, Hradsky BA, Butryn R, Ritchie EG (2019) Life in linear habitats: the movement ecology of an endangered mammal in a peri‐urban landscape. Animal Conservation PDF DOI

Restricted‐area culls and red fox abundance: Are effects a matter of time and place?

Authors: Jim‐Lino Kämmerle, Euan G Ritchie, and Ilse Storch

Published in: Conservation Science and Practice

Abstract

Predators are often culled to benefit prey, but in many cases this conservation goal is not achieved or results remain unknown.

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is a predator of global significance, and an invasive species in some regions. Red fox culls intended to benefit prey are often restricted to small areas, and effectiveness is rarely sufficiently evaluated.

Given the economic, ecological, social, and welfare issues associated with lethal predator control, there is a strong need to assess the effects of spatiotemporal variation in culling intensity on red fox abundance.

We surveyed red fox populations in fragmented forests of south‐western Germany and related indices of local fox abundance to culling data, predicted landscape‐scale fox abundance, and other covariates. We tested whether restricted‐area culling was associated with local reductions in fox abundance, and examined how this relationship changed over time.

Local fox abundance was temporarily reduced in spring, following winter culls. However, the effect was minor and fox populations had compensated for the reductions at the latest by autumn. Restricted‐area culling therefore likely failed to sustain effects on fox abundance throughout the period most relevant for conservation (i.e., the reproductive period of the target prey species).

To be effective as a conservation tool, culling will therefore require explicit spatiotemporal coordination matching the biology of predators and target prey.

Kämmerle J, Ritchie EG, Storch I (2019) Restricted‐area culls and red fox abundance: Are effects a matter of time and place? Conservation Science and Practice PDF DOI

The Conversation: To reduce fire risk and meet climate targets, over 300 scientists call for stronger land clearing laws

Without significant tree cover, dry and dusty landscapes can result. Image credit: Don Driscoll

By Martine Maron (The University of Queensland), Andrea Griffin (University of Newcastle), April Reside (The University of Queensland), Bill Laurance (James Cook University), Don Driscoll (Deakin University), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), and Steve Turton (CQUniversity Australia).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s high rates of forest loss and weakening land clearing laws are increasing bushfire risk, and undermining our ability to meet national targets aimed at curbing climate change.

This dire situation is why we are among the more than 300 scientists and practitioners who have signed a declaration calling for governments to restore, or better strengthen regulations to protect native vegetation.

Land clearing laws have been contentious in several states for years. New South Wales relaxed its land clearing controls in 2017, triggering concerns over irreversible environmental damage. Although it is too early to know the impact of those changes, a recent analysis found that land clearing has increased sharply in some areas since the laws changed.

The Queensland Labor government’s 2018 strengthening of land clearing laws came after years of systematic weakening of these protections. Yet the issue has remained politically divisive. While discussing a federal inquiry into the impact of these policies on farmers, federal agriculture minister David Littleproud suggested that the strenthening of regulations may have worsened Queensland’s December bushfires.

We argue such an assertion is at odds with scientific evidence. And, while the conservation issues associated with widespread land clearing are generally well understood by the public, the consequences for farmers and fire risks are much less so.

Tree loss can increase fire risk

During December’s heatwave in northern Queensland, some regions were at “catastrophic” bushfire risk for the first time since ratings began. Even normally wet rainforests, such as at Eungella National Park inland from Mackay, sustained burns in some areas during “unprecedented” fire conditions.

There is no evidence to support the suggestion that 2018’s land clearing law changes contributed to the fires. No changes were made to how vegetation can be managed to reduce fire risk. This is governed under separate laws, which remained unaltered.

In fact, shortly after the fires, Queensland’s land clearing figures were released. They showed that in the three years to June 2018, an area equivalent to roughly 570,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds (1,138,000 hectares) of bushland was cleared, including 284,000 hectares of remnant (old-growth) ecosystems.

Tree clearing can worsen fire risk in several ways. It can affect the regional climate. In parts of eastern Australia, tree cover reductions are estimated to have increased summer surface temperatures by up to 2℃ and southwest Western Australia by 0.4–0.8℃, reduced rainfall in southeast Australia, and made droughts hotter and longer.

Removing forest vegetation depletes soil moisture. Large, intact areas of forest typically have cooler, wetter microclimates buffered from extreme temperatures. Over time, some forest types can even become fire-resistant, but smaller patches of trees are typically drier and more flammable.

Trees also form a natural windbreak that can slow the spread of bushfires. An analysis of the 2005 Wangary fire in South Australia found that fires spread most rapidly through paddocks, rather than through areas lined with native trees.

Finally, Australia’s increasing risk of bushfire and worsening drought are driven by global climate change, to which land clearing is a major contributor.

Farmers on the frontline of environmental risk

Extensive tree clearing also leads to problems for farmers, including rising salinity, reduced water quality, and soil erosion. Governments and rural communities spend significant money and labour redressing the aftermath of excessive clearing.

Sensible regulation of native vegetation removal does not restrict existing agriculture, but rather seeks to support sustainable production. Retained trees can help deal with many environmental risks that hamper agricultural productivity, including animal health, long-term pasture productivity, risks to the water cycle, pest control, and human well-being.

Rampant tree clearing is undoing climate policy too. Much of the federal government’s A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund has gone towards tree planting. But it would take almost this entire sum just to replace the trees cleared in Queensland since 2012.

In 2019, Australians might reasonably expect that our relatively wealthy and well-educated country has moved beyond a frontier-style reliance on continued deforestation, and we would do well to better acknowledge and learn lessons from Indigenous Australians with respect to their land management practices.

Yet the periodic weakening of land clearing laws in many parts of Australia has accelerated the problem. The negative impacts on industry, society and wildlife are numerous and well established. They should not be ignored.

Persistence through tough times: fixed and shifting refuges in threatened species conservation

Authors: April E Reside, Natalie J Briscoe, Chris R Dickman, Aaron C Greenville, Bronwyn A Hradsky, Salit Kark, Michael R Kearney, Alex S Kutt, Dale G Nimmo, Chris R Pavey, John L Read, Euan G Ritchie, David Roshier, Anja Skroblin, Zoe Stone, Matt West, and Diana O Fisher

Published in: Biodiversity and Conservation

Abstract

It may be possible to avert threatened species declines by protecting refuges that promote species persistence during times of stress. To do this, we need to know where refuges are located, and when and which management actions are required to preserve, enhance or replicate them.

Here we use a niche-based perspective to characterise refuges that are either fixed or shifting in location over ecological time scales (hours to centuries). We synthesise current knowledge of the role of fixed and shifting refuges, using threatened species examples where possible, and examine their relationships with stressors including drought, fire, introduced species, disease, and their interactions.

Refuges often provide greater cover, water, food availability or protection from predators than other areas within the same landscapes. In many cases, landscape features provide refuge, but refuges can also arise through dynamic and shifting species interactions (e.g., mesopredator suppression). Elucidating the mechanisms by which species benefit from refuges can help guide the creation of new or artificial refuges. Importantly, we also need to recognise when refuges alone are insufficient to halt the decline of species, and where more intensive conservation intervention may be required.

We argue that understanding the role of ecological refuges is an important part of strategies to stem further global biodiversity loss.

Reside AE, Briscoe NJ, Dickman CR, Greenville AC, Hradsky BA, Kark S, Kearney MR, Kutt AS, Nimmo DG, Pavey CR, Read JL, Ritchie EG, Roshier D, Skroblin A, Stone Z, West M, Fisher DO (2019) Persistence through tough times: fixed and shifting refuges in threatened species conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation PDF DOI

The truth about cats and dogs: assessment of apex- and mesopredator diets improves with reduced observer uncertainty

Authors: Michael L Wysong, Ayesha IT Tulloch, Leonie E Valentine, Richard J Hobbs, Keith Morris, and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Jornal of Mammalogy

Abstract

Dietary (scat) analysis is a key tool for assessing the potential effects of predators on prey and for comparing resource use between predators, information that is crucial for effective wildlife management. However, misidentification of the species from which scats originate could result in inaccurate conclusions regarding predator–prey interactions and their consequences for ecosystems, which may ultimately compromise conservation and management actions.

To address this issue, we developed a framework for decision-making in the face of uncertain scat species origin by incorporating field, laboratory, and molecular identification techniques.

We used the framework to examine the diets of two predators, a native apex predator (dingo, Canis lupus dingo) and an invasive mesopredator (feral cat, Felis catus), from 696 field-collected scats in the arid zone of Australia.

We examined how uncertainty regarding scat species origin changed perceptions of the nature of the relationship between coexisting predators and their prey.

The extent of dietary overlap between dingoes and cats varied with the method used to identify scat species origin. Dietary overlap assessed by laboratory identifications was twice as high as when uncertainty in scat species origin was resolved through our decision framework.

If uncertainty in scat species origin is not resolved in dietary studies, practitioners and decision-makers relying on this information run the risk of making misinformed conclusions regarding the ecological function of predators (including potential impacts on threatened species), which could have perverse outcomes if the wrong predators are targeted for management.

With uncertainty in scat species origin resolved through our decision framework, a low level of dietary overlap between the two predators was demonstrated, and medium-sized mammals most threatened with extinction were shown to be more at risk of impact from feral cat than from dingo depredations.

Wysong ML, Tulloch AIT, Valentine LE, Hobbs RJ, Morris K, Ritchie EG (2019) The truth about cats and dogs: assessment of apex- and mesopredator diets improves with reduced observer uncertainty. Journal of Mammalogy PDF DOI

Improving the assessment of food system sustainability

Authors: Michalis Hadjikakou, Euan G Ritchie, Kate E Watermeyer, and Brett A Bryan

Published in: The Lancet – Planetary Health

The global food system is causing unsustainable pressures on the environment, leading to widespread land use change, increased greenhouse gas emissions, disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, biodiversity loss, and freshwater depletion and pollution. Environmental pressures are mounting as populations grow and diets change, escalating the need to make food production and consumption more sustainable. Yet, there are limitations in the current analysis of global food system sustainability. We believe there are four main areas that could be improved to make such analysis more comprehensive and insightful. These improvements could have important repercussions on the development of effective evidence-based policy that ultimately promotes production efficiencies and sustainable diets.

One set of opportunities for improvement in the analysis of food system sustainability relates to the robustness of the dietary scenarios that are modelled. First, these scenarios need to be made more plausible. Although assessment of radical shifts in human diets might be useful in highlighting the effects of animal-based versus plant-based foods, we question the benefit of emphasising the most extreme of scenarios (ie, a complete switch from omnivore to vegetarian or vegan diets), when the foreseeable global trend is heading strongly in the opposite direction. In addition, analyses of these extreme diet substitution scenarios tend to focus on greenhouse gas emissions, but in such scenarios, trade-offs between sustainability indicators are highly likely—aptly highlighted by the increased use of water in scenarios that model shifts from grass-fed livestock towards water-intensive crops. We argue that it is more insightful to model ambitious yet achievable, context-specific reductions in animal products, overconsumption (particularly of discretionary foods), and food waste, in line with those recently recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission on sustainable food systems for overall planetary health.

Secondly, more granular and dynamic analyses are needed. Estimates of environmental effects underpinning global food system analyses are typically based on life cycle assessment, an environmental accounting framework that captures effects from farm-to-fork. While the rigour and comprehensiveness of available life cycle assessment data and associated meta-analyses are improving and encompassing important trade-offs between sustainability objectives,5 significant shortcomings remain, notably in terms of low commodity-level detail and the use of global averages to infer region-specific or nation-specific environmental intensities (defined in life cycle assessments as the impact per functional unit of production). In addition, most life cycle assessments are static, and therefore do not represent system feedbacks that incorporate changes in demand because of production efficiency enhancements, or marginal changes in environmental effects involved in large-scale dietary shifts—such as when animal-based products are completely eliminated. The quantification of these dynamics and their system-wide environmental impacts is an opportunity to greatly improve sustainability assessments of different food products and proposed substitutions.

Thirdly, protein sources beyond conventional livestock need greater consideration. In many parts of the world, alternative animal protein sources such as abundant native species that are better adapted to local conditions (eg, kangaroo in Australia and deer in the northern hemisphere) can contribute to human nutrition, with such sourcing having considerably lower environmental effects than farming of conventional livestock. Many countries are also host to introduced feral animal populations that could serve as alternative protein sources—for example, Australia has substantial feral deer, goat, rabbit, pig, horse, and camel populations. Partly replacing existing mainstream protein sources with wild harvests of these alternative sources could achieve co-benefits for the environment (eg, through reducing emissions, land degradation, and the effects on native biodiversity), and improve human health, since game meat is typically leaner than lamb and beef. Conventional analyses also fail to account for other transformative shifts in animal-sourced protein, such as those towards laboratory-grown meat, insect-derived protein, and feeding animals on ecological leftovers such as food waste or grass from pastures. Including potential shifts to novel low-impact protein sources would ensure more comprehensive modelling of the associated environmental effects.

Finally, analyses should better quantify the diverse effects of food production on biodiversity and ecosystems. Food production contributes considerably to species extinction, which has detrimental effects on many ecosystems and plant and animal communities that are essential for supporting human life. Yet, there is an overreliance on proxy indicators such as land use when assessing terrestrial food systems. Previous research has highlighted how the extent of agricultural land area is not a good proxy for biodiversity impact, because of differences in production intensity and heterogeneity in biodiversity values. This limited analysis also extends to marine and freshwater food production. Stock depletion, bycatch, and habitat modification or loss, resulting from intensive aquaculture and fishing practices such as trawling, have substantial effects on the biodiversity of coastal and oceanic ecosystems. However, although some studies have considered the environmental intensities of aggregate categories such as farmed fish and crustaceans, the effect of fishing on wild stocks is typically not encompassed in life cycle assessments, despite appropriate data being available. Integration of a more diverse range of biodiversity indicators into the assessment of food system sustainability would allow for more meaningful analyses.

Taking advantage of the opportunities outlined here could facilitate a more complete understanding of the environmental effects of food production and consumption. Embracing these advances is a key prerequisite for developing effective policy recommendations. Our recommendations aim to foster a more comprehensive and nuanced debate on sustainable diets and the food system within the context of global environmental limits.

We declare no competing interests. We thank D Driscoll and BG Ridoutt for their insightful comments on the manuscript.

Hadjikakou M, Ritchie EG, Watermeyer KE, Bryan BA (2019) Improving the assessment of food system sustainability. The Lancet – Planetary Health PDF DOI