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.
One of the main reasons this website exists is to increase outreach, or put more excitingly, to share with everyone the super cool conservation stuff I’m passionate about and fortunate enough to do as part of my job!
I’ve just got back from one of my new favorite places, Victoria’s Big Desert / Wyperfeld region. This region is about as remote as Victoria gets. It’s a large, relatively intact section of Mallee heath that is characterised by seemingly endless white sand and large dune systems.
On first glance, one could be forgiven for thinking this system is ‘simple’. However, its faunal diversity, particularly its reptiles, is quite outstanding, and the diversity of plants is well known. However, my reason for visiting this region recently was not to look at reptiles or admire the floristic diversity, but rather to examine other curious inhabitants of the region. Predators and herbivores, in particular dingoes/wild dogs and foxes, and kangaroos and goats, respectively.
Of course, dogs can also have impacts on livestock, particularly sheep, so we’ll be looking at what dogs are eating too (through various means including scat analysis) and how they use the public- and private-land interface (along a gradient from outside to inside the Big Desert / Wyperfeld park region).
Two honours students (Thomas Healey and Jessica Lawton) will also be starting work in the region very soon. Tom will be examining predator-predator interactions, and Jess, the response of small mammals to the presence of predators and fire. Together these studies will build on previous research in the region. And, as always with this type of work, we’ll be looking for eager volunteers to help us out.
Lastly, a piece of advice, when you travel to the Victorian desert in June, don’t forget your sleeping bag, imagine how cold that would be…!
Authors: Leila A Brook, Christopher N Johnson and Euan G Ritchie
Apex predators can benefit ecosystems through top–down control of mesopredators and herbivores. However, apex predators are often subject to lethal control aimed at minimizing attacks on livestock. Lethal control can affect both the abundance and behaviour of apex predators. These changes could in turn influence the abundance and behaviour of mesopredators.
We used remote camera surveys at nine pairs of large Australian rangeland properties, comparing properties that controlled dingoes Canis lupus dingo with properties that did not, to test the effects of predator control on dingo activity and to evaluate the responses of a mesopredator, the feral cat Felis catus.
Indices of dingo abundance were generally reduced on properties that practiced dingo control, in comparison with paired properties that did not, although the effect size of control was variable. Dingoes in uncontrolled populations were crepuscular, similar to major prey. In populations subject to control, dingoes became less active around dusk, and activity was concentrated in the period shortly before dawn.
Shifts in feral cat abundance indices between properties with and without dingo control were inversely related to corresponding shifts in indices of dingo abundance. There was also a negative relationship between predator visitation rates at individual camera stations, suggesting cats avoided areas where dingoes were locally common. Reduced activity by dingoes at dusk was associated with higher activity of cats at dusk.
Our results suggest that effective dingo control not only leads to higher abundance of feral cats, but allows them to optimize hunting behaviour when dingoes are less active. This double effect could amplify the impacts of dingo control on prey species selected by cats. In areas managed for conservation, stable dingo populations may thus contribute to management objectives by restricting feral cat access to prey populations.
Brook L A, Johnson C N, Ritchie E G (2012) Effects of predator control on behaviour of an apex predator and indirect consequences for mesopredator suppression. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49: 1278–1286. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2012.02207.x
The 5500 kilometre long dingo fence is a monument to predator xenophobia and costs millions of dollars annually to maintain, but is it worth it?
It turns out the dingo is a sorely under-utilised weapon in our feral animal arsenal. Pretty much everywhere we’ve looked across Australia, when dingoes are abundant, foxes and cats aren’t, and native marsupials are. It’s called the mesopredator effect, and highlights the important role of predators in maintaining healthy ecosystems.
After some of our comments to the mainstream media were ignored or taken out of context, Corey Bradshaw and I are setting the record straight on dingoes in Australia and how we choose to manage them.