Category Archives: Research

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)

Abstract

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)

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

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

 

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 

 

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)

Abstract

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)

EucFires

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.

Abstract

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)

Abstract

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.

Abstract

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

Draft national targets for feral cat management: Towards the effective control of feral cats in Australia – targets with teeth

Authors: John CZ Woinarski, Keith Morris and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Tracey J, Lane C, Fleming P, Dickman C, Quinn J, Buckmaster, T, McMahon S (ed) (2015) 2015 National Feral Cat Management Workshop Proceedings.

Summary

Feral cats have been present in Australia since soon after European settlement. They are now numerous and pervasive across the continent, and occur on many islands. Although they have been recognised as a Key Threatening Process to Australian biodiversity under the EPBC Act since 1999, and there has been a Threat Abatement Plan for them in place since 2008, there has to date been little progress towards their effective management.

The challenges to effective control of feral cats in Australia are formidable. The geographic scale of concern is immense; many potential control mechanisms (such as trapping and shooting) typically have only superficial, transient and localised benefits; design of effective baits has only recently progressed substantially; there may be significant non-target impacts (including for threatened species such as quolls) from such toxic baits; baiting programs may need to be sustained for many years, and in many places need to also consider integration with control of foxes; reduction in cat numbers may have unwanted consequences (increases in other pest species, such as rabbits or introduced rodents); control programs will be expensive; and there will be some community concern about cat control.

However, progress towards the effective control of feral cats will achieve marked biodiversity benefits. Such control is likely to be substantially more efficient and cost-effective, and produce more enduring outcomes, than alternative conservation approaches based on intensive management for individual threatened species.
Here, we propose short-term (one year) targets towards the effective control of feral cats in Australia. These targets are set within a broader contextual and long-term (ca. 20 years) objective: No further extinctions of Australian wildlife, and pronounced recovery (and return to the wild) of at least 40 currently threatened animal species.

The targets recommended here are designed strategically to help establish a robust foundation for the decadal-scale campaign likely to be required to achieve enduring success. This should not be taken to indicate that significant progress can be achieved, if at all, only at glacial speed. Rather, explicit and dramatic short-term targets set now are required to overcome inertia, to recognise that this is a problem that should be confronted, to demonstrate that successful outcomes are possible, and because the continuing existence of some threatened species requires immediate action.

Woinarski JCZ, Morris K, Ritchie EG (2015) Draft national targets for feral cat management: Towards the effective control of feral cats in Australia – targets with teeth in Tracey J, Lane C, Fleming P, Dickman C, Quinn J, Buckmaster, T, McMahon S (ed) (2015) 2015 National Feral Cat Management Workshop Proceedings, Canberra, 21-22 April 2015. PestSmart Toolkit publication, Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, Canberra, Australia. PDF LINK

Incorporating anthropogenic effects into trophic ecology: predator–prey interactions in a human-dominated landscape

Authors: Ine Dorresteijn, Jannik Schultner, Dale G Nimmo, Joern Fischer, Jan Hanspach, Tobias Kuemmerle, Laura Kehoe and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, volume 282 (September 2015)

Apex predators perform important functions that regulate ecosystems world- wide. However, little is known about how ecosystem regulation by predators is influenced by human activities. In particular, how important are top-down effects of predators relative to direct and indirect human-mediated bottom-up and top-down processes?

Combining data on species’ occurrence from camera traps and hunting records, we aimed to quantify the relative effects of top-down and bottom-up processes in shaping predator and prey distributions in a human-dominated landscape in Transylvania, Romania. By global standards this system is diverse, including apex predators (brown bear and wolf), mesopredators (red fox) and large herbivores (roe and red deer). Humans and free-ranging dogs represent additional predators in the system.

Using structural equation modelling, we found that apex predators suppress lower trophic levels, especially herbivores. However, direct and indirect top- down effects of humans affected the ecosystem more strongly, influencing species at all trophic levels.

Our study highlights the need to explicitly embed humans and their influences within trophic cascade theory. This will greatly expand our understanding of species interactions in human-modified landscapes, which compose the majority of the Earth’s terrestrial surface.

Dorresteijn I, Schultner J, Nimmo DG, Fischer J, Hanspach J, Kuemmerle T, Kehoe L, Ritchie EG (2015) Incorporating anthropogenic effects into trophic ecology: predator–prey interactions in a human-dominated landscape, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282: 20151602 PDF DOI

 

The Conversation: Killing cats, rats and foxes is no silver bullet for saving wildlife

By Tim Doherty (Edith Cowan University), Chris Dickman (University of Sydney), Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University) and Euan Ritchie (Deakin University). 

Cats, rats and foxes have wrought havoc on Australian wildlife and ecosystems. Image credit Paul Hocksenar, Jude, Paul Hocksenar via Flickr.

Cats, rats and foxes have wrought havoc on Australian wildlife and ecosystems. Known as “invasive mammalian predators”, these are species that have established populations outside their native range.

Responsible for numerous extinctions across the globe, this group of species also includes American mink in Europe, stoats and ferrets in New Zealand, and mongooses on many islands.

One common solution is to kill these predators. However, research published this week in the journal Biological Conservation shows it’s much more complicated than that. Killing invasive predators often doesn’t work and is sometimes actually worse for native wildlife.

Killing for conservation

Management of the threats to biodiversity posed by invasive predators has focused on reducing their populations using lethal control. This includes poison baiting, trapping and shooting.

These programs have at times been successful at local scales and on islands. However, they are extremely costly and they often fail to stop declines of native fauna at larger scales.

Such management programs often occur with little regard for how they might interact with other threats that are impacting ecosystems. This has led to unpredictable outcomes of invasive predator control. Sometimes it doesn’t work or, worse, it results in a negative outcome for wildlife.

Key disturbances

We identified six disturbances with strong potential to increase the impacts of invasive predators: fire, grazing by large herbivores, land clearing, altered prey populations, the decline of top predators and resource subsidies from humans (such as increased food or shelter availability).

These disturbances interact with invasive predators in three main ways.

First, disturbances such as fire, grazing and land clearing result in a loss of vegetation cover, which makes prey more vulnerable to predation.

For example, small mammals in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia experienced more predation by feral cats in an intensely burnt area, compared with patchily burnt and unburnt areas. Grazing by livestock similarly removes protective cover. Research shows that feral cats prefer to hunt in these areas because of the improved hunting success.

Second, increases in food or declines of competing top predators can allow populations of invasive predators to increase, thereby increasing their impact on native species.

For example, introduced prey species, such as rabbits in Australia, can support larger predator populations. This can lead to increased predation pressure on native species – a process termed “hyperpredation”.

The extinction of the Macquarie Island parakeet was attributed to this process. The parakeet co-existed with feral cats for more than 60 years, but declined rapidly to extinction following the introduction of rabbits to the island in 1879. Resource subsidies, such as garbage or hunters’ carcass dumps, can also support larger predator populations, leading to greater predation pressure.

Third, many of these disturbances also have a direct impact on native species, which is exacerbated by invasive predators. For example, habitat fragmentation reduces population sizes of many native species due to habitat loss. Increased predation by invasive predators can therefore make a bad situation much worse.

Getting it right

Our synthesis shows that management of invasive predators is likely to benefit from employing more integrated approaches.

Maintaining habitat complexity and refuges for prey species is one way that invasive predator impacts can be reduced. This includes improved management of fire and grazing. Lower-intensity fires that retain patchiness could reduce the predation-related impacts of fire on native species. Such approaches may be the best option where no effective predator control method exists, such as for cats in northern Australia.

Native top predators such as wolves in Europe and North America or dingoes in Australia can have suppressive effects on invasive predators. “Rewilding” is an option in some places where these species have declined. Where native predators conflict with livestock producers, guardian animals can often protect livestock from predation instead of lethal control.

Reducing resource subsidies is a simple way of reducing food resources for invasive predator populations.

If lethal control is used, it should be applied with caution. Selectively removing individual pest species from ecosystems can do more harm than good. Multi-species approaches are the best way to avoid such surprises and the order in which species are removed is an important consideration.

Rather than focusing on single processes, conservation managers should consider the multiple disturbances operating in stressed ecosystems and use management actions that address these threats in unison. Such integrated approaches are essential if further extinctions are to be avoided.

The paper is free to download until 30 July 2015.The Conversation

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

The Conversation

 

Multiple threats, or multiplying the threats? Interactions between invasive predators and other ecological disturbances

Authors: Tim S Doherty, Chris R Dickman, Dale G Nimmo and Euan G Ritchie

Abstract

Invasive species have reshaped the composition of biomes across the globe, and considerable cost is now associated with minimising their ecological, social and economic impacts. Mammalian predators are among the most damaging invaders, having caused numerous species extinctions.

Here, we review evidence of interactions between invasive predators and six key threats that together have strong potential to influence both the impacts of the predators, and their management.

We show that impacts of invasive predators can be classified as either functional or numerical, and that they interact with other threats through both habitat- and community-mediated pathways.

Ecosystem context and invasive predator identity are central in shaping variability in these relationships and their outcomes. Greater recognition of the ecological complexities between major processes that threaten biodiversity, including changing spatial and temporal relationships among species, is required to both advance ecological theory and improve conservation actions and outcomes.

We discuss how novel approaches to conservation management can be used to address interactions between threatening processes and ameliorate invasive predator impacts.

Doherty TS, Dickman CR, Nimmo DG, Ritchie EG (2015) Multiple threats, or multiplying the threats? Interactions between invasive predators and other ecological disturbances, Biological Conservation, 190, 60-68 PDF DOI

A funny thing happened last Thursday

A mysterious benefactor donated more than $2 billion to The Bog Roo Count. Well, almost.

A mysterious benefactor donated more than $2 billion to The Big Roo Count. Well, almost.

A funny thing happened last Thursday. For a brief hour or so Jenny and I became the custodians of billions of conservation dollars. ‘Huh?’, you say?

At approximately 12.30 pm the mysterious Jeffrey Green donated a little over $2 billion to our crowd-funding campaign. Sadly the money disappeared within an hour or so. We never really thought the donation was real, but it was fun to think what it might mean for both the Big Roo Count, and more broadly and importantly Australia’s biodiversity.

Professor Possingham has estimated that if federal and state governments invested $200 million a year we could secure all of Australia’s threatened species. So imagine what more than 500 times that would mean! To put things in perspective, the federal defence budget is roughly $26 billion a year. Stop its budget for three days and you could save all threatened species in Australia.

Imagine… we’re ready!

P.S. Jeff, if you really are keen to donate to our campaign we are ready to receive and make good!

The Big Roo Count

Help us conserve northern Australia's iconic mammals by supporting The Big Roo Count. Image credit: David Webb

Help us conserve northern Australia’s iconic mammals by supporting The Big Roo Count. Image credit: David Webb

Ten years ago, with my wife Jen, I was finishing up four years of fieldwork in some of Australia’s most remote and spectacular habitats. We had been lucky enough to be investigating the ecology and conservation of Australia’s tropical kangaroos and wallabies, collecting first-of-its kind information on where they each occurred, how big the populations were and why each species lived in certain areas and not others.

But a lot can change in ten years.

While Jen and I have been blessed with kids, health, happiness and more, our northern mammals haven’t been so lucky. Many are disappearing; some at alarming rates. Why? fires, feral cats and climate change are all likely causes.

We have a plan that will give us our best shot at conserving Australia’s northern kangaroos and wallabies.

This winter, we’re packing our kids and our tent into a four-wheel-drive for an epic journey of scientific discovery to find out how the roos are faring ten years down the track.

We’ll repeat all the work we did a decade ago at the same field sites:

  • roo counts,
  • mapping habitat and measuring its condition,
  • and the most glamourous job of all: counting and collecting kangaroo poos to get more information on which species live where.

This time, we will also be packing exciting new technology including remotely-triggered camera traps.

It’s rare for ecologists to have long-term information like this. Our data will tell us what we are up against in the battle to conserve our native kangaroos, wallabies and other native fauna in the same region. We’ll also take every opportunity to talk with as many people as we can about the conservation issues facing northern Australia’s mammals.

“Euan Ritchie’s re-survey of kangaroos and wallabies across northern Australia 10 years on from his foundational PhD survey is fundamentally important research. Nobody but Euan can undertake the work, and I’m profoundly grateful that he’s willing to do it.” — Professor Tim Flannery

Following the outstanding success of my crowdfunded research project on Papua New Guinea’s remote mountain mammals, we are again partnering with Pozible to bring this project to life. With your generous support, we’ll be able to hire a four-wheel-drive and buy the remote camera traps we need to do this important work.

For more information, a video, regular updates and to pledge your support, visit pozible.com/bigroocount.

Please help us conserve Australia’s iconic northern kangaroos and wallabies. Please support The Big Roo Count!

Interspecific and Geographic Variation in the Diets of Sympatric Carnivores: Dingoes/Wild Dogs and Red Foxes in South-Eastern Australia

Authors: Naomi E Davis, David M Forsyth, Barbara Triggs, Charlie Pascoe, Joe Benshemesh, Alan Robley, Jenny Lawrence, Euan G Ritchie, Dale G Nimmo and Lindy F Lumsden.

Abstract

Dingoes/wild dogs (Canis dingo/familiaris) and red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are widespread carnivores in southern Australia and are controlled to reduce predation on domestic livestock and native fauna.

We used the occurrence of food items in 5875 dingo/wild dog scats and 11,569 fox scats to evaluate interspecific and geographic differences in the diets of these species within nine regions of Victoria, south-eastern Australia.

The nine regions encompass a wide variety of ecosystems. Diet overlap between dingoes/wild dogs and foxes varied among regions, from low to near complete overlap. The diet of foxes was broader than dingoes/wild dogs in all but three regions, with the former usually containing more insects, reptiles and plant material. By contrast, dingoes/wild dogs more regularly consumed larger mammals, supporting the hypothesis that niche partitioning occurs on the basis of mammalian prey size.

The key mammalian food items for dingoes/wild dogs across all regions were black wallaby (Wallabia bicolor), brushtail possum species (Trichosurus spp.), common wombat (Vombatus ursinus), sambar deer (Rusa unicolor), cattle (Bos taurus) and European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). The key mammalian food items for foxes across all regions were European rabbit, sheep (Ovis aries) and house mouse (Mus musculus).

Foxes consumed 6.1 times the number of individuals of threatened Critical Weight Range native mammal species than did dingoes/wild dogs. The occurrence of intraguild predation was asymmetrical; dingoes/wild dogs consumed greater biomass of the smaller fox.

The substantial geographic variation in diet indicates that dingoes/wild dogs and foxes alter their diet in accordance with changing food availability.

We provide checklists of taxa recorded in the diets of dingoes/wild dogs and foxes as a resource for managers and researchers wishing to understand the potential impacts of policy and management decisions on dingoes/wild dogs, foxes and the food resources they interact with.

Davis NE, Forsyth DM, Triggs B, Pascoe C, Benshemesh J, Davis NE, Forsyth DM, Triggs B, Pascoe C, Benshemesh J, Robley A, Lawrence J, Nimmo DG, Ritchie EG, Lumsden LF (2015) Interspecific and Geographic Variation in the Diets of Sympatric Carnivores: Dingoes/Wild Dogs and Red Foxes in South-Eastern Australia. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0120975. PDF DOI

Stemming the tide: progress towards resolving the causes of decline and implementing management responses for the disappearing mammal fauna of northern Australia

Authors: Mark R Ziembicki, John C Z Woinarski, Jonathan K Webb, Eric Vanderduys, Katherine Tuft, James Smith, Euan G Ritchie, Terry B Reardon, Ian J Radford, Noel Preece, Justin Perry, Brett P Murphy, Hugh McGregor, Sarah Legge, Lily Leahy, Michael J Lawes, John Kanowski, Chris N Johnson, Alex James, Anthony D Griffiths, Graeme Gillespie, Anke S K Frank, Alaric Fisher and Andrew A Burbidge.

Abstract

Recent studies at some sites in northern Australia have reported severe and rapid decline of some native mammal species, notwithstanding an environmental context (small human population size, limited habitat loss, substantial reservation extent) that should provide relative conservation security.

All of the more speciose taxonomic groups of mammals in northern Australia have some species for which the conservation status has been assessed as threatened, with 53% of dasyurid, 46% of macropod and potoroid, 33% of bandicoot and bilby, 33% of possum, 31% of rodent, and 24% of bat species being assessed as extinct, threatened or near-threatened.

This paper reviews disparate recent and ongoing studies that provide information on population trends across a broader geographic scope than the previously reported sites, and provides some information on the conservation status and trends for mammal groups (bats, larger macropods) not well sampled in previous monitoring studies. It describes some diverse approaches of studies seeking to document conservation status and trends, and of the factors that may be contributing to observed patterns of decline.

The studies reported provide some compelling evidence that predation by feral cats is implicated in the observed decline, with those impacts likely to be exacerbated by prevailing fire regimes (frequent, extensive and intense fire), by reduction in ground vegetation cover due to livestock and, in some areas, by ‘control’ of dingoes. However the impacts of dingoes may be complex, and are not yet well resolved in this area.

The relative impacts of these individual factors vary spatially (with most severe impacts in lower rainfall and less topographically rugged areas) and between different mammal species, with some species responding idiosyncratically: the most notable example is the rapid decline of the northern quoll Dasyurus hallucatus due to poisoning by the introduced cane toad Rhinella marina, which continues to spread extensively across northern Australia. The impact of disease, if any, remains unresolved.

Recovery of the native mammal fauna may be impossible in some areas. However, there are now examples of rapid recovery following threat management. Priority conservation actions include: enhanced biosecurity for important islands, establishment of a network of substantial predator exclosures, intensive fire management (aimed at increasing the extent of longer-unburnt habitat and in delivering fine scale patch burning), reduction in feral stock in conservation reserves, and acquisition for conservation purposes of some pastoral lands in areas that are significant for mammal conservation.

Ziembicki MR, Woinarski JCZ, Webb JK, Vanderduys E, Tuft K, Smith J, Ritchie EG, Reardon TB, Radford IJ, Preece N, Perry JP, Murphy BP, McGregor H, Legge S, Leahy L, Lawes MJ, Kanowski J, Johnson CN, James A, Griffiths AD, Gillespie G, Frank ASK, Fisher A, Burbidge AA (2015) Stemming the tide: progress towards resolving the causes of decline and implementing management responses for the disappearing mammal fauna of northern Australia, Therya 2015 6(1) 169-225 PDF DOI

Does fire influence the landscape-scale distribution of an invasive mesopredator?

Authors: Catherine J Payne, Euan G Ritchie, Luke T Kelly and Dale G Nimmo.

Abstract

Predation and fire shape the structure and function of ecosystems globally. However, studies exploring interactions between these two processes are rare, especially at large spatial scales. This knowledge gap is significant not only for ecological theory, but also in an applied context, because it limits the ability of landscape managers to predict the outcomes of manipulating fire and predators.

We examined the influence of fire on the occurrence of an introduced and widespread mesopredator, the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), in semi-arid Australia. We used two extensive and complimentary datasets collected at two spatial scales.

We examined the influence of fire on the distribution of introduced red foxes in semi-arid Australia. Image credit Area51Bel [CC-BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

We examined the influence of fire on the distribution of introduced red foxes in semi-arid Australia. Image credit Area51Bel [CC-BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

At the landscape-scale, we surveyed red foxes using sand-plots within 28 study landscapes — which incorporated variation in the diversity and proportional extent of fire-age classes — located across a 104 000 km² study area. At the site-scale, we surveyed red foxes using camera traps at 108 sites stratified along a century-long post-fire chronosequence (0–105 years) within a 6630 km² study area.

Red foxes were widespread both at the landscape and site-scale. Fire did not influence fox distribution at either spatial scale, nor did other environmental variables that we measured.
Our results show that red foxes exploit a broad range of environmental conditions within semi-arid Australia.

The presence of red foxes throughout much of the landscape is likely to have significant implications for native fauna, particularly in recently burnt habitats where reduced cover may increase prey species’ predation risk.

Payne CJ, Ritchie EG, Kelly LT, Nimmo DG (2014) Does Fire Influence the Landscape-Scale Distribution of an Invasive Mesopredator? PLoS ONE 9(10): e107862 PDF DOI 

Towards a cohesive, holistic view of top predation: a definition, synthesis and perspective

Authors: Fabrizio Sergio, Oswald J Schmitz, Charles J Krebs, Robert D Holt, Michael R Heithaus, Aaron J Wirsing, William J Ripple, Euan G Ritchie, David Ainley, Daniel Oro, Yadvendradev Jhala, Fernando Hiraldo and Erkki Korpimäki.

Abstract

Research on the ecology of top predators — upper trophic level consumers that are relatively free from predation once they reach adult size — has provided regular contributions to general ecology and is a rapidly expanding and increasingly experimental, multidisciplinary and technological endeavour.

Yet, an exponentially expanding literature coupled with rapid disintegration into specialized, disconnected subfields for study (e.g. vertebrate predators versus invertebrate predators, community ecology versus biological control, etc.) increasingly means that we are losing a coherent, integrated understating of the role and importance of these species in ecosystems.

This process of canalization is likely to hinder sharing of scientific discovery and continued progress, especially as there is a growing need to understand the generality of the top–down forcing, as demonstrated for some members of this group.

Here, we propose ways to facilitate synthesis by promoting changes in mentality and awareness among specialists through increased debate and collaboration, conceptual reviews and a series of exemplary case studies.

The strategy will rely on the collective contribution by all scientists in the field and will strive to consolidate and formalise top-order predation as a holistic, cohesive, cross-taxonomical field of research studying the ecology, evolution and behaviour of apex predators and their capability to exert top–down forcing on lower trophic levels.

Sergio F, Schmitz OJ, Krebs CJ, Holt RD, Heithaus MR, Wirsing AJ, Ripple WJ, Ritchie EG, Ainley D, Oro D, Jhala Y, Hiraldo F, Korpimäki E (2014) Towards a cohesive, holistic view of top predation: a definition, synthesis and perspective. Oikos DOI PDF