Tag Archives: biodiversity

The Conversation: Should we move Tasmanian Devils back to the mainland?

This Tasmanian Devil needs a holiday. How about the mainland? Flickr/sillypucci

This Tasmanian Devil needs a holiday. How about the mainland? Image by sillypucci [CC BY-NC 3.0] via Flickr

In almost all parts of the world our environment is under siege and we are losing the battle to save many species from extinction. The most common threats behind this unfolding catastrophe are habitat loss and modification, invasive species, and climate change. What can we do?

Usually we focus on treating the symptoms — planting trees or shooting pest animals — but these treatments often fail. Perhaps we need radical new solutions for fixing broken ecosystems.

One such solution could be introducing (or reintroducing) species to ecosystems. There is now a serious and broad-based proposal to release Tasmanian Devils into the wild at Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, saving devils from extinction in Tasmania, and restoring damaged ecosystems on the mainland.

What is rewilding?

We can look at the Tasmanian Devil proposal in terms of an ecological concept known as rewilding. In essence, rewilding seeks to restore ecological function to habitats by introducing or reintroducing species that could perform vital roles.

Perhaps the best example comes from Yellowstone National Park in the US, where wolves were returned after a 70-year absence. Wolves are crucial to Yellowstone’s ecosystems. Without them herbivores like deer and moose flourish, and prevent trees from producing saplings (see video below).

In Australia, the Tasmanian Devil is an ideal candidate for reintroduction to the mainland.

Saving devils

Tasmanian Devils used to inhabit mainland Australia. When exactly they went extinct on the mainland is uncertain, with dates ranging from 5,000 to as recent as 500 years ago. But in 1881 Frederick McCoy, the first director of the National Museum, noted that Tasmanian Devils (or perhaps that should be “mainland” devils) are very common in the most recent cave deposits in Victoria. These fossils are identical to living devils in Tasmania.

Why they became extinct is more mysterious. Various theories have attributed blame to climate change, over-hunting by Aboriginal Australians, and dingoes.

But whatever the cause, current conditions at Wilson’s Promontory closely resemble those in Tasmania, and have likely remained unchanged for thousands of years, with no dingoes and plenty of prey. So we can be sure that the devils would fit in.

But why move them now?

One excellent reason is that there is a genuine risk that devils could become extinct in the wild by 2025, as a result of devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). A mainland population would act as a large, wild insurance population, outside of Tasmania where DFTD is present.

How would the mainland benefit?

So we know Tasmanian Devils have been on the mainland before, and that moving them might help save the species from extinction. But what could devils offer the mainland?

One of the biggest benefits devils could offer is in the control of the red foxes, feral cats and overabundant herbivores (such as wombats, rabbits and wallabies). Evidence for this comes from Tasmania. Following the decline of devils due to DFTD, species such as the feral cat have been increasing. This in turn is associated with a halving in population size of a smaller, native predator, the Eastern Quoll (once present, but now extinct in Victoria).

Some have also suggested that the reason foxes have only recently established themselves in Tasmania is not solely due to humans introducing them, but because devils declined around the same time. Prior to DFTD, devils may have been acting as a first line of defence against foxes by killing their cubs.

Currently we spend a lot of money managing foxes on mainland Australia through baiting programs. But are we going to do this forever? Devils may provide a 24-7 predator control service, free of charge.

Focusing on foxes also ignores the fact that there is no effective control of probably Australia’s most damaging feral animal, cats. As noted above, devils are capable of limiting cats too.

Another issue at Wilson’s promontory is an over-abundance of herbivores including wombats, swamp wallabies, rabbits, kangaroos and hog deer. All of these increased rapidly following the removal of dingoes in the 1940s.

In high numbers these herbivores can radically alter habitats, making them unsuitable for other species. We can shoot herbivores to keep them down, or we could introduce a natural predator such as Tasmanian Devils.

What’s next?

Parks Victoria and an ambitious multi-institutional research hub, the Wildlife Biodiversity Co-operative Research Centre are behind the new proposal to move devils to Wilson’s Promontory. Planning is underway for a comprehensive proposal to the Victorian and Tasmanian governments, and thorough consultation with the public.

With this in mind I urge our leaders to be bold and act now. There are always risks with moving species, but not taking calculated risks to conserve our wildlife is perhaps even worse. A devil reintroduction should be viewed as a positive and strategic national decision, and one for which future generations will thank us.

It is not often we can achieve win-wins in conservation, but helping prevent the extinction of the Tasmanian devil by re-establishing a mainland population, and restoring desperately needed ecosystem function to habitats, may just be the best conservation win-win waiting to happen.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Loose laws threaten Australia’s wildlife

Kookaburras, koalas and kangaroos — Australia is well known for its charismatic animals and vast, seemingly untamable, wild spaces. But throughout the country, the national parks and reserves that protect these unique animals and ecosystems have come under increasing threat. New rules and relaxed regulations, which bolster immediate economic growth, are putting pressure on Australia’s already-threatened biodiversity.

Read more at Mongabay.com

The dingo: from sinner to saviour — NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Eureka Prize for Environmental Research

I’m extremely excited, proud and humbled to announce that I am part of a collaborative research team awarded this year’s NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.

It's a big night for 'Team Dingo' at the Eureka Prizes

It’s a big night for ‘Team Dingo’ at the Eureka Prizes.

Our research centres on the much-maligned and often polarising predator: the dingo.

Though sometimes miscast as vermin, our research shows that dingoes are key elements in the struggle to reduce damage caused by foxes, feral cats and even kanagroos; and that ecosystems with dingoes have better vegetation and more diverse and abundant populations of small native mammals. In fact, a good dose of our native dog can sustain biodiversity and help land managers control invasive species.

Part cultural icon, part livestock pest, Australia’s largest terrestrial predator is also an important component of healthy ecosystems and a useful contributor to environmental recovery and the protection of threatened species.

‘Team Dingo’ is:

  • Professor Chris Johnson, University of Tasmania
  • Dr Michael Letnic, University of New South Wales
  • Dr Euan Ritchie, Deakin University
  • Dr Arian Wallach, James Cook University
  • Adam O’Neill, Evelyn Downs Station.
'Team Dingo' celebrate at the Eureka Prizes

‘Team Dingo’ celebrate at the Eureka Prizes. Left to right: Dr Euan Ritchie, Dr Arian Wallach, Prof Chris Johnson, Dr Mike Letnic. Image: Australia Museum and Daniel O’Doherty.

On behalf of the team, I would also like to congratulate our fellow Eureka finalists: Dr David Post, Dr Francis Chiew (CSIRO), Dr Bertrand Timbal and Dr Harry Hendon (Bureau of Meteorology) for their work on the causes and predictability of climate variability and its impacts on water availability; and Dr Jason Sharples (University of New South Wales) and Richard McRae (ACT Emergency Services Agency) for their research on the causes and effects of catastrophic firestorms.

Presented annually by the Australian Museum, the Eureka Prizes reward excellence in the fields of research and innovation, leadership and commercialisation, school science and science journalism and communication.

Science Alert: Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?

Another attack on Fraser Island — the flashpoint for dingo management issues — has highlighted our complex relationship with Australia’s largest terrestrial predator.

The Fraser Island Dingo is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Image by Glen Fergus [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The Fraser Island Dingo is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Image by Glen Fergus [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 park after a near 90-year absence, the balance of an entire ecosystem shifted. Grazing by overabundant elk dropped leading to recovery of native aspen, willow and cottonwood trees. Beavers returned, small predators and scavengers increased and coyote numbers dropped, indirectly benefiting the threatened pronghorn antelope.

Recent research from around the globe is demonstrating that large predators, like wolves and dingoes, play a critical role in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

Read more at Science Alert

The Australian: MPs’ ignorance puts parks in peril

Last week the world was appalled when Ecuador decided to open up one of its iconic national parks for petroleum development. Yet the world should be even more disappointed in Australia, a far wealthier nation whose parks could be facing even worse threats.

Why is Australia going down this reckless path? It’s all down to the state governments.

Read more about the threats facing Australia’s national parks: grazing, logging, clearing, development and worst of all: the erosion of vital government protections.

Published: The dingo and biodiversity conservation — response to Fleming et al.

Authors: Chris N Johnson and Euan G Ritchie


Several authors have recently argued that dingoes could be used to help conserve biodiversity in Australia. Fleming et al. (2012) [Australian Mammalogy 34, 119–131] offer the alternative view that restoration of dingo predation is unlikely to help native species, and is more likely to do harm. We think many of the arguments used by Fleming et al. to reach that conclusion are either unsound or beside the point, and we explain why.

Dingo Christopher Watson Wikimedia Commons 1248 x 772

The dingo is Australia’s largest terrestrial predator. But what does that mean for smaller predators, prey and the interactions between them? Image by By Christopher Watson [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.

Johnson CN, Ritchie EG (2013) The dingo and biodiversity conservation: response to Fleming et al. Australian Mammalogy, 2013, 35, 8–14 DOI PDF

Big Desert update 2

I’ve just returned from a glorious two-week family holiday in sunny north Queensland. How I’ve missed the place, so much cool wildlife everywhere! Among the highlights were spotting a male cassowary with three chicks (my son is currently obsessed with these oversized birds), watching platypus swim from our front veranda on the Atherton Tablelands — if you’re looking for a biologist’s paradise you can’t go wrong here — and taking the kids spotlighting for NQ’s arboreal mammals. We missed out on tree kangaroos, alas, but we did see green ringtail, lemuroid, and Herbert River ringtail possums, coppery brushtail possums and long-nosed bandicoots. And at age five, Rohan seems to be well on his way to a successful career in field ecology, spotting the eye-shine of many possums himself.

But enough on holidays; what I’d like to update everyone on is the first results to roll in from our Big Desert work. As I’ve written previously, this is an incredibly remote and largely unstudied region, so there’s much to be discovered and learned. What have we found so far? Well, I’ll let the video, below, do most of the talking, but what’s most exciting is that we’ve confirmed there is a dog population in the park, and some individuals appear to look very much like dingoes. We always suspected this, but it’s nice to have positive confirmation. Another interesting result is that goats were not recorded on any of the cameras so far, as compared to the Murray Sunset National Park, to the north, where goats are very abundant, but dogs/dingoes are absent. It’s early days, the habitats of Murray Sunset and the Big Desert / Wyperfeld region are somewhat different, and I’m sure we’ll find some goats in the region soon enough, as they’ve been recorded there. But, it does suggest dingoes may be playing a role in keeping goat numbers down, as we know they do from other studies conducted in other parts of Australia .

Some may remember the Victorian Government recently reviewed the evidence for the existence of big cats; the legendary Black Panther. Well, we may just have found it ourselves! (second-last clip in the video). On a serious note though, cats appear to be relatively common, and great variation exists in their morphology (as seen on the videos). Cats are known to be a major factor behind the extinction of many native species, and new research also shows how they have large impacts on wildlife through the spread of toxoplasmosis. We’re keen to understand more about the role of foxes and dingoes in suppressing cats and therefore disease transmission, but more on that later…

No rest for the wicked. I’m off to Belfast next week to attend the 11th International Mammalogical Congress. I’ll be speaking about the dingo barrier fence and co-chairing a symposium on trophic cascades, ecological restoration and conservation of mammals. I’m really looking forward to a week of listening to mammal research from around the world, and perhaps just a wee Guinness or two as well.