Category Archives: Research

Human-modified habitats facilitate forest-dwelling populations of an invasive predator, Vulpes vulpes

Authors: Bronwyn A Hradsky, Alan Robley, Ray Alexander, Euan G Ritchie, Alan York, and Julian Di Stefano

Published in: Scientific Reports


Invasive and over-abundant predators pose a major threat to biodiversity and often benefit from human activities. Effective management requires understanding predator use of human-modified habitats (including resource subsidies and disturbed environments), and individual variation within populations.

We investigated selection for human-modified habitats by invasive red foxes, Vulpes vulpes, within two predominantly forested Australian landscapes. We predicted that foxes would select for human-modified habitats in their range locations and fine-scale movements, but that selection would vary between individuals. We GPS-tracked 19 foxes for 17–166 days; ranges covered 33 to >2500 ha.

Approximately half the foxes selected for human-modified habitats at the range scale, with some ‘commuting’ more than five kilometres to farmland or townships at night. Two foxes used burnt forest intensively after a prescribed fire. In their fine-scale nocturnal movements, most foxes selected for human-modified habitats such as reservoirs, forest edges and roads, but there was considerable individual variation. Native fauna in fragmented and disturbed habitats are likely to be exposed to high rates of fox predation, and anthropogenic food resources may subsidise fox populations within the forest interior.

Coordinating fox control across land-tenures, targeting specific landscape features, and limiting fox access to anthropogenic resources will be important for biodiversity conservation.

Hradsky BA, Robley A, Alexander R, Ritchie EG, York, Di Stefano J (2017) Human-modified habitats facilitate forest-dwelling populations of an invasive predator, Vulpes vulpes. Scientific Reports PDF DOI 

Honours projects for 2018

Looking for an exciting honours project in ecology? I have three openings for 2018.

I also welcome other project ideas from students if they fit with my expertise and research priorities.

To find out more, please refer to the Deakin University website: Honours in Life and Environmental Sciences, or contact me.

Fox, cat and fire interactions in the Grampians National Park

Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie

External and co-supervisors: Dr Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University) and Dr Tim Doherty, (Deakin University)

Start date: February 2018

Foxes are invasive predators in the Grampians. Image credit: Dan Derrett via Flickr

This project, a research partnership between Parks Victoria and Deakin University, will examine fox and cat distribution across the Grampians National Park. Specifically, it will aim to examine:

  1. The effect of fire on fox and cat habitat use.
  2. Fox diet.

Experience with using R and/or ArcGIS will be advantageous but is not essential. A manual driver’s licence is essential for this project.

The ecological role of eastern barred bandicoots in a newly established island population

Principal Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie

External and co-supervisors: Dr Duncan Sutherland (Phillip Island Nature Parks) and Dr Amy Coetsee (Zoos Victoria)

Start date: February or July 2018

Eastern barred bandicoots persist only in captivity or within fox-free nature reserves. Image credit JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons

Mainland eastern barred bandicoots (EBBs) are listed as extinct in the wild, persisting only in captivity or within fox-free fenced reserves.

Phillip Island Nature Parks, together with Zoos Victoria and the Eastern Barred Bandicoot Recovery Team, have established an EBB population on fox-free Churchill Island, adjacent to Phillip Island.

This project forms part of a broader effort to bring EBBs back from the brink of extinction and off the threatened species list. We seek an honours student for a project to experimentally determine the role of EBBs as ecological engineers, in particular their effect on invertebrate communities.

Experience with using R and/or ArcGIS will be advantageous but is not essential. Field accommodation on Phillip Island is available.

Large herbivore impacts on alpine ecosystems

Principal Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie

External and co-supervisors: Professor Don Driscoll and Dr Tim Doherty (Deakin University)

Start date: July 2018

Large, introduced herbivores, such as deer, threaten alpine ecosystems. Image credit: Rexness via Flickr

Large feral herbivores, such as horses and deer, threaten alpine ecosystems through overgrazing and trampling of vegetation, spreading weeds, elevated nutrients, and breaking down stream banks and reducing water quality.

This project will examine the impacts of large herbivores on alpine vegetation communities, and in turn on smaller, native vertebrate species.

Experience with using R and/or ArcGIS will be advantageous, but is not essential. A manual driver’s licence is essential for this project.

Bayesian networks elucidate interactions between fire and other drivers of terrestrial fauna distributions

Authors: Bronwyn A Hradsky, Trent D Penman, Dan Ababei, Anca Hanea, Euan G Ritchie, Alan York, and Julian Di Stefano

Published in: Ecosphere, volume 8, issue 8 (August 2017)


Fire is a major driver of community composition and habitat structure and is extensively used as an ecological management tool in flammable landscapes. Interactions between fire and other processes that affect animal distributions, however, cause variation in faunal responses to fire and limit our ability to identify appropriate fire management regimes for biodiversity conservation.

Bayesian networks (BNs) have not previously been used to examine terrestrial faunal distributions in relation to fire, but offer an alternative statistical framework for modeling complex environmental relationships as they explicitly capture interactions between predictor variables.

We developed a conceptual model of the interactions between drivers of faunal distributions in fire-affected landscapes, and then used a non-parametric BN modeling approach to describe and quantify these relationships for a suite of terrestrial native mammal species. We also tested whether BNs could be used to predict these species’ distributions using only remote-sensed or mapped variables.

Data were collected at 113 sites across 47,000 ha of continuous eucalypt forest in the Otway Ranges, southeastern Australia; time-since-fire (TSF) ranged from six months to 74 years.

Habitat complexity increased with TSF and forest wetness. Critical-weight-range (35–5500 g) marsupials and rodents were generally more likely to occur at long unburnt sites with high habitat complexity, and in wetter forest types. In contrast, large grazers and browsers preferred less complex habitats and younger or drier forest. Species occurrences were more strongly affected by habitat complexity than TSF, coarse woody debris cover, or invasive predator (Vulpes vulpes or Felis catus) occurrence.

Bayesian network models effectively discriminated between the presence and absence of most native mammal species, even when only provided with data on remote-sensed or mapped variables (i.e., without field-assessed data such as habitat complexity). Non-parametric BNs are an effective technique for explicitly modeling the complex and context-dependent influence of fire history on faunal distributions, and may reduce the need to collect extensive field data on habitat structure and other proximate drivers.

Hradsky BA, Penman TD, Ababei D, Hanea A, Ritchie EG, York A and Di Stefano J (2017) Bayesian networks elucidate interactions between fire and other drivers of terrestrial fauna distributions. Ecosphere PDF DOI 

Managing conflict between large carnivores and livestock

Authors: Lily M Van Eeden, Mathew S Crowther, Chris R Dickman, David W Macdonald, William J Ripple, Euan G Ritchie, and Thomas M Newsome

Published in: Conservation Biology (early view)


Large carnivores are persecuted globally because they threaten human industries and livelihoods. How this conflict is managed has consequences for the conservation of large carnivores and biodiversity more broadly. Mitigating human-predator conflict should be evidence-based and accommodate people’s values while also protecting carnivores.

Despite much research into human-large carnivore coexistence strategies, there have been limited attempts to document the success of conflict mitigation strategies on a global scale.

We present a meta-analysis of global research on conflict mitigation between large carnivores and humans, focusing on conflicts that arise from the threat that large carnivores pose to livestock industries.

Overall, research effort and focus varied between continents, aligning with the different histories and cultures that shaped livestock production and attitudes towards carnivores.

Of the studies that met our criteria, livestock guardian animals were most effective at reducing livestock losses, followed by lethal control, although the latter exhibited the widest variation in success and the two were not significantly different. Financial incentives have promoted tolerance in some settings, reducing retaliatory killings.

In future, coexistence strategies should be location-specific, incorporating cultural values and environmental conditions, and designed such that return on financial investment can be evaluated. Improved monitoring of mitigation measures is urgently required to promote effective evidence-based policy.

Van Eeden LM, Crowther MS, Dickman CR, Macdonald DW, Ripple WJ, Ritchie EG, Newsome TM (2017) Managing conflict between large carnivores and livestock. Conservation Biology, PDF DOI

The global impacts of domestic dogs on threatened vertebrates

Authors: Tim S Doherty, Chris R Dickman, Alistair S Glen, Thomas M Newsome, Dale G Nimmo, Euan G Ritchie, Abi T Vanak, Aaron J Wirsinge

Published in: Biological Conservation, volume 210 (June 2017)


Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) have a near-global distribution. They range from being feral and free-ranging to owned and completely dependent on humans. All types of domestic dogs can interact with wildlife and have severe negative impacts on biodiversity.

Here, we use IUCN Red List data to quantify the number of threatened species negatively impacted by dogs, assess the prevalence of different types of dog impact, and identify regional hotspots containing high numbers of impacted species. Using this information, we highlight key research and management gaps and priorities.

Domestic dogs have contributed to 11 vertebrate extinctions and are a known or potential threat to at least 188 threatened species worldwide. These estimates are greater than those reported by previous assessments, but are probably conservative due to biases in the species, regions and types of impacts studied and/or reported.

Percentage of extinct or threatened vertebrate species that are, or were, affected by different types of dog impact.

Predation is the most frequently reported impact, followed by disturbance, disease transmission, competition, and hybridisation. Regions with the most species impacted are: South-east Asia, Central America and the Caribbean, South America, Asia (excluding SE), Micro/Mela/Polynesia, and Australia.

We propose that the impacts of domestic dogs can be better understood and managed through: taxonomic and spatial prioritisation of research and management; examining potential synergisms between dogs and other threatening processes; strategic engagement with animal welfare and human health campaigns; community engagement and education; and mitigating anthropogenic effects such as resource subsidies. Such actions are essential for threatened species persistence, especially given that human and dog populations are expected to increase both numerically and geographically in the coming decades.

Doherty TS, Dickman CR, Glen AS, Newsome TM, Nimmo DG, Ritchie EG, Vanak AT, Wirsing AJ (2017) The global impacts of domestic dogs on threatened vertebrates. Biological Conservation, 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)


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

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