Like cats and dogs: dingoes can keep feral cats in check



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Feral cats are linked to the extinction of at least 20 Australian mammals.
Shutterstock

Mike Letnic, UNSW and Ben Feit

The role of dingoes in the Australian landscape is highly debated between ecologists, conservationists and graziers. They kill livestock, but also hunt introduced animals and keep kangaroo populations in check.

Now new research sheds more light on the benefits dingoes bring to the outback. For the first time, our research clearly shows that dingoes suppress feral cat numbers.

Our research, published recently in Ecosystems, used the world’s largest fence to compare essentially identical environments with and without dingoes. Over the course of the six-year study, dingoes drove down cat numbers – and kept them down.




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Feral cats are out of control

Feral cats are a serious conservation threat. They have been linked to the extinction of at least 20 mammal species in Australia and threaten the ongoing survival of more than 100 native species.

For our study, we asked whether “top-down” pressure from dingoes (through direct killing and competition for food) had a greater influence on controlling cat numbers than “bottom-up” effects (the availability of shared food sources preyed on by cats).

Dingoes drive down the population of introduced animals.
Kim/flickr, CC BY-SA

We conducted our study by comparing the numbers of dingoes, cats and their major prey species on either side of the dingo fence in the Strzelecki Desert. The fence runs along the borders of New South Wales and South Australia and was originally built to exclude dingoes from sheep grazing lands in NSW.

The state border follows the longitude line 141 east, so the fence does not demarcate any natural boundary. It simply cuts a straight line through sand dunes with similar landforms and vegetation on either side. Thus the dingo fence provides a unique opportunity to study apex predators’ effects on ecosystems: dingoes are common on the SA side, “outside” the fence, whereas on the NSW “inside” of the fence, dingoes are rare due to intensive persecution by humans.




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We collected data from sites on either side of the fence in the Strzelecki Desert, at roughly four-month intervals between 2011 and 2017. Dingo and cat scat was collected at each site, to analyse and compare diets, and spotlight searches were used to record numbers of dingoes, feral cats, as well as two of their common shared food sources: rabbits and hopping mice.

Spotlight surveys revealed dingoes to be virtually absent from study areas inside the fence, with only four dingoes recorded during the study. Where dingoes were rare inside the fence, cat numbers closely followed fluctuations of their prey species consistently over the six-year span of our study. As prey numbers increased, cat numbers also increased, and similarly as prey numbers declined, cat numbers also declined.

A feral cat in outback Australia.
Shutterstock

Outside the fence, where dingoes were common, it was quite a different story. There, cat numbers were consistently lower, with numbers of both cats and dingoes following fluctuations in prey numbers across the first two years of the study. However, from 2013 onward, dingo numbers remained high and matched trends in their prey numbers for the remainder of the study.

During this time, cat numbers remained low, and by the end of 2015, cats had virtually disappeared from our study sites outside the fence and were not recorded during spotlight surveys between November 2015 and the end of our study in July 2017.

The most likely explanation for this drastic reduction in cat populations is through interference competition – either by dingoes killing some cats or by scaring others away from habitats in which they would usually hunt. Indeed, we occasionally found cat remains in dingo scats, which suggests dingoes prey on cats.

Although our scat analyses indicated that dingoes and cats eat similar foods, there was no evidence that competition for food was a major factor in how dingoes reduce cat populations. This is because prey were plentiful outside the fence, where dingoes were common and cats were rare.




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This research show how dingoes can help conservation efforts by suppressing feral cat populations. It adds to previous work showing dingoes are important in maintaining healthy ecosystems, as they reduce and eradicate feral herbivores like pigs and goats, and stop kangaroos from overpopulating districts.


This article was updated on April 5 to credit Ben Feit as a co-author.The Conversation

Mike Letnic, Professor, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW and Ben Feit, Post-doctoral researcher

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

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Invasive ants: federal budget takes aim but will it be a lethal shot?



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Argentine ants are a fact of life in many parts of Australia, but can still potentially be banished from Norfolk Island.
Davefoc/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Lori Lach, James Cook University

Amid all the usual items we expect to see in the federal budget was one that raised eyebrows: A$28.8 million for three ant eradication programs.

Yet amid the inevitable media puns about the government “upping the ant-e”, we should note that these funds are for the continuation of existing programs that have already attracted significant funding and made substantial progress. Stopping now would have meant previous funding was wasted.

The funds will go a long way towards protecting Australia’s economy and environment from the damage wrought by invasive ants. But despite the apparent cash splurge, it nevertheless falls short of what is really needed.

Of the $28.8 million, $18.3 million was for the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. These funds are part of a $411 million, ten-year program begun in 2017 to eradicate red imported fire ants from southeast Queensland, the only place they are found in Australia.




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Removing these pests will avoid an estimated $1.65 billion in total costs to 19 different parts of the economy. With previous funding, the program eradicated these ants from 8,300 hectares near the Port of Brisbane, making it the world’s largest ant eradication to date.

The Yellow Crazy Ant Eradication Program was allocated $9.2 million over three years. Yellow crazy ants have caused a cascade of ecological effects on Christmas Island, and at their peak abundance temporarily blinded a Queensland cane farmer with their acid spray.

The Wet Tropics Management Authority, which runs the program, had requested $6 million per year for six years to continue removing the ant from in and around the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The federal funding is $3 million short of this, and the authority is still waiting to hear whether the Queensland government will provide the remainder.

Since 2013, the program has received $9.5 million from the federal government (and $3 million from the Queensland government). No yellow crazy ants have been observed in about half of the target area in more than a year. A yet-to-be published analysis estimates the benefit-cost ratio for the program as 178:1.

“It’s a mop-up operation… we’ve got our foot on the throat of this thing.”

A further $1.3 million was allocated to the Argentine Ant Eradication Strategy on Norfolk Island in the South Pacific. Argentine ants have invaded places with Mediterranean-type climates all over the world, including southwestern Western Australia and parts of southern Australia, and become firmly established. But unlike those areas, the population on Norfolk Island is still considered small enough to be eradicable, and federally funded efforts to remove them began in 2010.

Yellow crazy ants in Queensland and Argentine ants on Norfolk Island directly threaten World Heritage Areas. The ants can have significant impacts on native birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and plants. Getting rid of them is important for meeting Australia’s international obligations to protect World Heritage sites.

What is ant eradication?

Ant eradication means removing all individuals of a particular ant species from a given area.

The first step is to define the extent of that area. Depending on the species, this may involve visual searches and/or placing lures such as sausages, cat food, or jam to attract the ants. The public can help by notifying relevant authorities of unusual ants in their gardens, and by not transporting materials that have ants on them.

The second step is treatment. Currently, the only way to eradicate ants is with insecticidal baits. Ants’ social structure makes this particularly challenging: killing the queens is vital for eradication, but queens typically stay sheltered in the nest – the only ants we see out foraging are workers.

Some of the most problematic ant species can have hundreds of queens and tens of thousands of workers per nest. They can reach extraordinarily high densities, partly because invasive ant species, unlike most of our native ant species, do not fight one another for territories.

Yellow crazy ants, proving it is possible to feel sorry for a cockroach.
Bradley Rentz/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Beating ants means turning their biology against them. Bait needs to be attractive enough for workers to bring back to the colony and share, but not so deadly that they die before they get there. (And yes, this means if you’re spraying foraging ants in your kitchen you won’t get rid them for good, because the queens are somewhere hidden, laying more eggs and making more ants.)

Most ant eradication programs take three to four years to fine-tune their baiting regime because of a multitude of factors that need to be considered, such as seasonal changes in ant foraging behaviour and food preference, and the desire to avoid harming non-target species. Typically, two to six treatments are required, depending on the ant species, the size of the area, and the habitat type.

Beating the 1%

The hardest part of ant eradication is the end-game. Getting rid of the final 1% requires first finding them. This may mean painstaking searches through hundreds of hectares of bushland and residential areas, and the placement of hundreds of thousands of lures. Detector dogs can be very helpful, but they cannot be used in all environments and also need substantial resources for training, handling, and maintenance.

Ironically, it is at this stage that public and political support for eradication programs is most likely to wane, because ant numbers are too low to be seen as a threat to the public, economy or environment. Yet it is vital not to stop now, or else the remaining 1% will simply build up their numbers again. Experienced staff are also lost when programs suffer cuts or delays in their funding.




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Disappointingly not mentioned in the budget was funding for eradicating electric ants. Like red imported fire ants, electric ants have a painful sting, and when left to multiply will eventually turn gardens and swimming pools into no-go zones. They also pose a significant threat to native animals such as the southern cassowary, and can blind animals as large as elephants.

They are currently only found in the Cairns region. The National Electric Ant Eradication Program, funded by federal and state governments, ran from 2006 until 2017 and had likely reduced numbers down to that last 1%. The program has been running on state funding with reduced staff since then, but several new detections in the past three months demonstrate the cost of the gap in funding.

In those inevitable “federal budget winners and losers” lists, invasive ants have found themselves firmly in the losers column for 2019. But it’s worth remembering that most of the world’s roughly 15,000 known ant species provide vital services for the functioning of our ecosystems.

They aerate soil and redistribute its nutrients, protect plants from herbivores, disperse seeds, and repurpose dead organisms. They may even help slow down the spread of those pesky invasive ants that are much less friendly.The Conversation

Lori Lach, Associate Professor, James Cook University

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

Trapdoor spider species that stay local put themselves at risk



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A palisade trapdoor spider of the new species E. turrificus walks across the rainforest floor near Maleny, Queensland.
Jeremy Wilson, Author provided

Jeremy Dean Wilson, Griffith University

Several new species of trapdoor spiders found in Queensland are finally described in an article published this month in Invertebrate Systematics.

But each of the new species occurs in only its own single, isolated patch of rainforest in southeastern Queensland, and nowhere else.

Because these species have such tiny natural distributions, they are especially vulnerable to extinction.




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Unique spider burrows

These newly described spiders have been given the common name palisade trapdoor spiders because of the strange and unique burrows they construct. The entrance to the burrow projects out from the surrounding soil like a miniature turret.

The remarkable palisade burrows constructed by two different species of palisade trapdoor spider. The burrow entrances project from the surrounding soil.
Jeremy Wilson (left), Michael Rix (right)

Not only that, but each of the four new palisade trapdoor spider species constructs its own unique type of burrow.

One species, found in national parkland near Gympie and known scientifically as Euoplos crenatus, constructs a particularly elaborate burrow. The hinged door that covers the burrow entrance is adorned with several rounded lobes which project from the door’s circumference.

This marvel of natural architecture is constructed by the spider using silk and soil. No other spider species in the world constructs something similar.

This species was originally discovered by local naturalists Kelvin and Amelia Nielsen in 1999, who then guided researchers back to the discovery location in 2016 to collect specimens so the species could be formally named.

The burrow entrance of Euoplos crenatus, with its peculiar ‘crenate’ burrow door.
Michael Rix

Another species, Euoplos thynnearum, constructs a burrow entrance with a thick lip within which the burrow door sits. It’s found in the Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve, a 55-hectare patch of subtropical rainforest popular with visitors to the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

This species is named after Elizabeth, Mabel and Mary Thynne, who originally donated the reserve land to the local council in 1941 to honour their mother Mary Thynne (née Cairncross). Currently, this species is known to occur only within the reserve and in other rainforest patches in the immediate vicinity.

Burrow entrances of the new palisade trapdoor spider species Euoplos thynnearum. This species is largely restricted to a single rainforest patch, occurring within Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve near Maleny.
Michael Rix

Short-range species at risk

Species that only only occur in a very small area, like these new palisade trapdoor spider species, are known as short-range endemic species.

Although scientists are naming new species at a faster rate than ever before, estimates of the total number of species on Earth still suggest that most animal species have not been formally named. With so much work still to do, some scientists have chosen to prioritise work on particular types of animals that are especially vulnerable to extinction.

In 2002, Mark Harvey, an arachnologist from the Western Australian Museum, proposed that scientists should prioritise the discovery and description of short-range endemic species.

He reasoned that the small ranges of these species make them inherently vulnerable to extinction, and that identifying, naming and studying them is the first step to protecting them.

The strange burrows of the trapdoor spider species Euoplos crenatus project out from between the roots and leaf-litter on the bank of a creek in a rainforest patch near Gympie, Queensland.
Jeremy Wilson

Staying local

For trapdoor spiders, short-range endemism is the rule, not the exception. These spiders live their entire lives in a burrow. Juvenile spiders walk only short distances from their mother’s burrow, before constructing a burrow of their own.

Usually, these spiders will then remain in the same burrow for the remainder of their lives, enlarging it as they grow.

Examples of different trapdoor spider species from eastern Australia. Top left, Arbanitis longipes; top right, Heteromigas sp.; bottom left, Cataxia sp.; bottom right, Namea sp.
Jeremy Wilson

Adult male trapdoor spiders will also leave their burrow to breed, but will only travel relatively short distances. Over time, this extremely limited dispersal ability has led to the evolution of many different trapdoor spider species, each of which occurs in only a very small area.

Since 2012, a research team, led by Queensland Museum researcher Michael Rix, has been trying to discover and name all species of spiny trapdoor spider – this group includes the palisade trapdoor spiders, as well as other strange trapdoor spider species such as the shield-backed trapdoor spiders of Western Australia.

A shield-backed trapdoor spider from Western Australia, showing the distinctive hardened disk on its abdomen which the spider uses to ‘plug’ its burrow as a protection from predators.
Mark Harvey

So far, this project has led to the description of more than 100 new species from throughout Australia, some of which are already classified as threatened by federal and state governments.




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The most iconic of these is Idiosoma nigrum (also a shield-backed trapdoor spider), which is a listed threatened species.

The discovery of all these weird and wonderful spider species should remind us that Australia has some of the most remarkable invertebrate species in the world, and new species are waiting to be discovered in the national parks and reserves which occur around, and even within, our towns and cities – under our noses.

Next time you visit a national park, or drive past a patch of forest while commuting along Australia’s east coast, think to yourself, what might be living in there? Do those species occur anywhere else? And above all, if we lose that forest remnant, what unique species might disappear along with it?The Conversation

Jeremy Dean Wilson, Ph.D candidate, Department of Environment & Science, Griffith University, Griffith University

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