Friday essay: the cultural meanings of wild horses



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Wild horses, known as brumbies, in Australia.
Shutterstock.com

Michael Adams, University of Wollongong

I am walking quietly through the forest. As I reach the edge of the trees there is a snort and a staccato of hoofbeats, and four horses materialise only metres in front of me: a foal, two mares and a dark stallion. The stallion, ears pricked, tosses his head and prances forward. As I crouch to pick up a branch, the stallion wheels and gallops off with the group. They hurdle an old stock fence, and almost as soon as their hoofs touch down, another big grey stallion comes towards them over the hill.

The next minutes are completely mesmerising. The two stallions fight, 50 metres from me. Dust hangs in the air around them, their screams echo off the hills, the impact of their hoof strikes reverberates in my belly. They rear, scream; snake heads out to bite, whirl and kick. Eventually, bleeding and bruised, the dark stallion breaks and runs. The grey makes a show of chasing, then canters back to the mares, arching his neck, prancing with lifted tail.

This is one of many times I have seen horses, called brumbies in Australia, in the mountains. While cross-country skiing in the south I have watched them in the snow – ragged manes flying, galloping through a mist of ice crystals – and many times while driving and bushwalking in both the north and south of Kosciuszko National Park. I have also watched them cantering in clouds of dust in central Australia, and grazing in the swamps of Kakadu. Each of these wild horse encounters has been deeply visceral and emotional, elemental expressions of life in dramatic and beautiful landscapes.

Horses are large, powerful and charismatic animals, and humans have ancient connections to them. Wild horses are dominant among the 13 species painted on the caves of Chauvet in France 30,000 years ago, and while there continues to be debate, archaeologists suggest evidence for horse domestication is at least 5,500 years old. And like the oldest human-animal relationship outside hunting – with dogs – the horse relationship is unique because we now mostly do not eat this animal.

Like dogs, horses now occur on every continent except Antarctica, and humans have been the primary agent for their dispersal. In North America, where the first true horses evolved and then died out, they were reintroduced by Columbus in 1493. Horses are the most recent of the main species humans domesticated, and the least different (with cats) from their wild counterparts.

Horses and other animals on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in southern France, from 30,000 years ago.
Claude Valette/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Australia has the largest wild horse herd in the world, maybe 400,000 or more horses, spread across nearly every bioregion from the tropical north to the arid centre to the alpine areas. That sounds like a dramatically large number, but Australia also has around one million domestic horses, about 100 million cattle and sheep, maybe 20 million feral pigs and 25 million kangaroos. But the presence of wild horses here is deeply controversial.

Six thousand of these horses are in Kosciuszko National Park. Ongoing controversy around these wild horses encompasses debate about their impact and their cultural meaning. There is very little systematic research and a large amount of emotive and anecdotal argument, from both sides. There is circularity and self-referencing in government wild horse management plans, very little reference to studies from Australia and almost no peer-reviewed research on horse impacts in the Snowy Mountains, despite decades of argument that they cause environmental degradation.

And Kosciuszko is right next to Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory, which has the highest per capita horse-ownership of anywhere in Australia. Several enterprises run horse-trekking trips into the Snowy Mountains, often interacting with brumbies. The Dalgety and Corryong annual shows on the boundaries of the park highlight horse skills, including catching and gentling brumbies. In many places mountain cattle properties are increasingly using horses instead of motorbikes to handle stock.

The Kosciuszko wild horses are also tangled within the embedded idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the largest national park in New South Wales. Here there are protected populations of two species of invasive fish (brown and rainbow trout) that are demonstrably responsible for local extinctions of native fish and frog species; a gigantic hydro-electric scheme with dominant infrastructure across large areas of the park; and expanding ski resorts where it is possible to buy lodges. Much of the landscape that is now part of the park has a long history of summer grazing by sheep and cattle, with stockworkers’ huts scattered across the high country. This “wilderness” has been home to Aboriginal people for millennia, as well as well-known grazing grounds for more than a century.

These complexities and contradictions reflect our often unconscious modern propensity for hubris: we insist we are in charge of what happens on the planet, including in its “wild” places and “wild” species. Terms like “land management”, “natural resource management”, and “conservation management”, all reflect this assumption of superiority and control.

Roping wild horses, Gippsland, Arthur John Waugh, circa 1910-1920.
State Library of Victoria

Indigenous interactions

The United States has similar controversies over the management of mustangs across large areas of the west. New Zealand has the Kaimanawa horses, a special and isolated herd on army land. In both of those countries, as in Australia, there is a unique history of horse interactions with Indigenous communities. The great Native American horse cultures are well known and extraordinary, as Indians had no introduction to equestrian skills from the Spanish invaders, they learnt extremely quickly from scratch.

The first horses in New Zealand were a gift to Maori communities from missionary Samuel Marsden in 1814, and a Waitangi Tribunal Claim has been brought to protect the Kaimanawa horses as Maori taonga (treasures). Aboriginal stockmen and stockwomen were the mainstay of the pastoral industry all over Australia until the equal wage ruling of 1968 resulted in the wholesale expulsion of Aboriginal stockworkers in north and central Australia.

Peter Mitchell’s recent book Horse Nations uses that term to describe the people-animal relationship in certain Indigenous communities. Both Native American and Aboriginal cosmologies often place animals including horses, as their own “nations”, with whom they have a responsibility to respectfully interact.


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The wild horses of the Australian Alps are arguably the strongest cultural icons. The enduring legacy of The Man from Snowy River, both the iconic Banjo Paterson poem and the 1980s film, but also the Silver Brumby series of novels by Elyne Mitchell, still in print after nearly 70 years, idealise the strength, beauty and spirit of wild mountain horses. At least one source suggests that “the man” from Paterson’s poem was in fact a young Aboriginal rider.

This is not at all implausible – there is much documentation, as well as strong oral histories, of Aboriginal men and women working stock on horseback across the Snowy Mountains. The Aboriginal mountain missions at Brungle and Delegate both have many stories of earlier generations working as stock riders and also mustering wild mountain horses. David Dixon, Ngarigo elder, says

Our old people were animal lovers. They would have had great respect for these powerful horse spirits. Our people have always been accepting of visitors to our lands and quite capable of adapting to change so that our visitors can also belong, and have their place.

While the iconic figure of the cowboy and stockman is masculine, amongst Aboriginal stockworkers women and girls were likely as common as men and boys. In contemporary times, women far outnumber men in equestrian participation, and brumby defenders are equally represented by men and women. Four Australian horsewomen generously shared their knowledge and skills in the research that backgrounds this essay.

Animal intelligence

In the mid 1970s, I worked as a ranger in Kosciuszko National Park. In those days rangering was a seat-of-the-pants enterprise: we used to buy at least part of our uniforms out of our own money because the issued items were so inadequate, we taught ourselves to cross-country ski, we drank socially with the brumby-runners and other people from the surrounding rural communities.

Shooting wild horses, Samuel Calvert, 1889.
State Library of Victoria

In many places rangers were and are intimately part of the community, not seen as “public servants”. There is a complex and interesting relationship between university-educated national parks staff and local rural workers with deeply embodied knowledge and skills, with rangers acknowledging that they need the skills of these locals to carry out much animal-related work in the parks, including trapping and mustering wild horses. Recent proposals to helicopter shoot large numbers of wild horses in Kosciuszko would potentially sever this link. Helicopter shooting requires specific marksmanship skills not common in rural communities.

While we debate how to reduce our wild horse numbers, other countries are working to re-establish wild horse herds in Europe and Asia. It is often argued that domestication saved horses (and many other species) from extinction, aiding their establishment all over the planet while their wild ancestors diminished or disappeared. Creating populations of newly wild species is termed both “rewilding’ and ”de-domestication“, and there are numerous and increasing examples around the world. Some of these proposals include the reestablishment of species long extinct, or their ecological equivalents.

In the period increasingly accepted as the Anthropocene, species are both declining and flourishing. Domesticated species have been moved all over the world; other introduced species flourish in new landscapes, and many of these are escaped or released domesticates. In the oceans, as large predators have declined all the cephalopods (octopus, squid and cuttlefish) are increasing. Highly specialised species that evolved on isolated islands have declined precipitously, while generalist species are flourishing.

Global conservation management attempts to work against both of these trends: we attempt to suppress populations of flourishing species, while supporting or increasing populations of declining ones, including through translocations and captive breeding programs. These activities call into question the nature of nature in the 21st century: what is the “wild” in all this management and manipulation?

While Australia debates removing wild horses, other countries are seeking to increase their wild herds.
Shutterstock.com

In these questions, the lives and cosmologies of Indigenous peoples, and the lives of other species, offer us serious teachings. The agency and intelligence of animals, the increasing discoveries of distinct cultures amongst animal populations, the agency of planetary systems in continually reorganising around changing inputs, all stand against the modern human insistence on control, stability and stasis.

While hiking mountain grasslands looking for wild horse bands, I have several times come across horse skeletons whitening in the sunlight, their energy and power transmuted back into the source from which new lives will spring. In a world where human societies are increasingly narcissistic, where our dominant concern is ourselves, recognising the agency and intelligence of other species can be deeply humbling.

Perhaps our task is to harmonise ourselves with these old and new environments, not continually attempt to “manage” them into some other state that we in our hubris think is more desirable, whether ecologically, economically or culturally.

The ConversationThanks to Adrienne Corradini, Jen Owens, Blaire Carlon and Tonia Gray for improving my understanding of horse and brumby issues.

Michael Adams, Associate Professor of Human Geography, University of Wollongong

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

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For whom the bell tolls: cats kill more than a million Australian birds every day



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On the prowl in the outback.
Hugh McGregor/Arid Recovery, Author provided

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Leigh-Ann Woolley, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Australian National University; Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University

Cats kill more than a million birds every day across Australia, according to our new estimate – the first robust attempt to quantify the problem on a nationwide scale.

By combining data on the cat population, hunting rates and spatial distribution, we calculate that they kill 377 million birds a year. Rates are highest in Australia’s dry interior, suggesting that feral cats pose a serious and largely unseen threat to native bird species.


Read more: Ferals, strays, pets: how to control the cats that are eating our wildlife


This has been a contentious issue for more than 100 years, since the spread of feral cats encompassed the entire Australian mainland. In 1906 the ornithologist A.J. Campbell noted that the arrival of feral cats in a location often immediately preceded the decline of many native bird species, and he campaigned vigorously for action:

Undoubtedly, if many of our highly interesting and beautiful birds, especially ground-loving species, are to be preserved from total extinction, we must as a bird-lovers’ union, at no distant date face squarely a wildcat destruction scheme.

His call produced little response, and there has been no successful and enduring reduction in cat numbers since. Nor, until now, has there been a concerted effort to find out exactly how many birds are being killed by cats.

Counting the cost

To provide a first national assessment of the toll taken by cats on Australian birds, we have compiled almost 100 studies detailing the diets of Australia’s feral cats. The results show that the average feral cat eats about two birds every five days.

We then combined these statistics with information about the population density of feral cats, to create a map of the estimated rates of birds killed by cats throughout Australia.

Number of birds eaten per square kilometre.
Brett Murphy, Author provided

We conclude that, on average, feral cats in Australia’s largely natural landscapes kill 272 million birds per year. Bird-kill rates are highest in arid Australia (up to 330 birds per square km per year) and on islands, where rates can vary greatly depending on size.

We also estimate (albeit with fewer data) that feral cats in human-modified landscapes, such as the areas surrounding cities, kill a further 44 million birds each year. Pet cats, meanwhile, kill about 61 million birds per year.

Overall, this amounts to more than 377 million birds killed by cats per year in Australia – more than a million every day.

Which species are suffering?

In a related study, we also compiled records of the bird species being killed by cats in Australia. We found records of cats killing more than 330 native bird species – about half of all Australia’s resident bird species. In natural and remote landscapes, 99% of the cat-killed birds are native species. Our results also show that cats are known to kill 71 of Australia’s 117 threatened bird species.

Birds that feed or nest on the ground, live on islands, and are medium-sized (60-300g) are most likely to be killed by cats.

Galahs are among the many native species being killed by feral cats.
Mark Marathon, Author provided

It is difficult to put a million-plus daily bird deaths in context without a reliable estimate of the total number of birds in Australia. But our coarse assessment from many published estimates of local bird density suggests that there are about 11 billion land birds in Australia,
suggesting that cats kill about 3-4% of Australia’s birds each year.

However, particular species are hit much harder than others, and the population viability of some species (such as quail-thrushes, button-quails and ground-feeding pigeons and doves) is likely to be especially threatened.

Our tally of bird deaths is comparable to similar estimates for other countries. Our figure is lower than a recent estimate for the United States, and slightly higher than in Canada. Overall, bird killings by cats seem to greatly outnumber those caused by humans.

In Australia, cats are likely to significantly increase the extinction risk faced by some bird species. In many locations, birds face a range of interacting threats, with cat abundance and hunting success shown to increase in fragmented bushland, in areas with high stocking rates, and in places with poorly managed fire regimes, so cat impacts compound these other threats.

Belling the cat

What can be done to reduce the impact? The federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy recognises the threat posed by feral cats, albeit mainly on the basis of their role in mammal extinctions.

The threatened species strategy also prioritised efforts to control feral cats more intensively, eradicate them from islands with important biodiversity values, and to expand a national network of fenced areas that excludes feral cats and foxes.

But while fences can create important havens for many threatened mammals, they are much less effective for protecting birds. To save birds, cats will need to be controlled on a much broader scale.


Read more: The war on feral cats will need many different weapons


We should also remember that this is not just a remote bush problem. Roughly half of Australia’s cats are pets, and they also take a considerable toll on wildlife.

While recognising the many benefits of pet ownership, we should also work to reduce the detrimental impacts. Fortunately, there is increasing public awareness of the benefits of not letting pet cats roam freely. With such measures, cat owners can help to look after the birds in their own backyards, and hence contribute to conserving Australia’s unique wildlife.


The ConversationWe acknowledge the contribution of Russell Palmer (WA Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions), Chris Dickman (University of Sydney), David Paton (University of Adelaide), Alex Nankivell (Nature Foundation SA Inc.), Mike Lawes (University of KwaZulu-Natal), and Glenn Edwards (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) to this article.

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Senior Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Leigh-Ann Woolley, Research Associate, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Associate Professor, Australian National University; Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University

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

From feral camels to ‘cocaine hippos’, large animals are rewilding the world



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Most of the world’s wild horses, such as the Australian brumby, are outside their historic native range.
Andrea Harvey

Erick Lundgren, University of Technology Sydney; Arian Wallach, University of Technology Sydney; Daniel Ramp, University of Technology Sydney, and William Ripple, Oregon State University

Throughout history, humans have taken plants and animals with them as they travelled the world. Those that survived the journey to establish populations in the diaspora have found new opportunities as they integrate into new ecosystems.

These immigrant populations have come to be regarded as “invaders” and “aliens” that threaten pristine nature. But for many species, migration may just be a way to survive the global extinction crisis.

In our recently published study, we found that one of the Earth’s most imperilled group of species is hanging on in part thanks to introduced populations.

Megafauna – plant-eating terrestrial mammals weighing more than 100kg – have established in new and unexpected places. These “feral” populations are rewilding the world with unique and fascinating ecological functions that had been lost for thousands of years.

Today’s world of giants is only a shadow of its former glory. Around 50,000 years ago, giant kangaroos, rhino-like diprotodons, and other unimaginable animals were lost from Australia.


Read more: Giant marsupials once migrated across an Australian Ice Age landscape


Later, around 12,000 years ago, the last of the mammoths, glyptodonts, several species of horses and camels, house-sized ground sloths and other great beasts vanished from North America.

In New Zealand, a mere 800 years ago, a riot of giant flightless birds still grazed and browsed the landscape.

The loss of Earth’s largest terrestrial animals at the end of the Pleistocene was most likely caused by humans.

Sadly, even those large beasts that survived that collapse are now being lost, with 60% of today’s megafauna threatened with extinction. This threat is leading to international calls for urgent intervention to save the last of Earth’s giants.

A wilder world than we think

Formal conservation distribution maps show that much of Earth is empty of megafauna. But this is only a part of the picture.

Many megafauna are now found outside their historic native ranges. In fact, thanks to introduced populations, regional megafauna species richness is substantially higher today than at any other time during the past 10,000 years.

Megafauna have expanded beyond their historic native range to rewild the world. Number of megafauna per region, in their ‘native’ range only (a) and in their full range (b)
Modified and reproduced from Lundgren et al. 2017

Worldwide introductions have increased the number of megafauna by 11% in Africa and Asia, by 33% in Europe, by 57% in North America, by 62% in South America, and by 100% in Australia.

Australia lost all of its native megafauna tens of thousands of years ago, but today has eight introduced megafauna species, including the world’s only wild population of dromedary camels.

Australia lost all of its native megafauna tens of thousands of years ago, but is now home to eight introduced species, including the world’s only population of wild dromedary camels. Remote camera trap footage from our research program shows wild brumbies, wild donkeys and wild camels sharing water sources with Australian dingoes, emus and bustards in the deserts of South Australia.

These immigrant megafauna have found critical sanctuary. Overall, 64% of introduced megafauna species are either threatened, extinct, or declining in their native ranges.

Some megafauna have survived thanks to domestication and subsequent “feralisation”, forming a bridge between the wild pre-agricultural landscapes of the early Holocene almost 10,000 years ago, to the wild post-industrial ecosystems of the Anthropocene today.

Wild cattle, for example, are descendants of the extinct aurochs. Meanwhile, the wild camels of Australia have brought back a species extinct in the wild for thousands of years. Likewise, the vast majority of the world’s wild horses and wild donkeys are feral.

There have been global calls to rewild the world, but rewilding has already been happening, often with little intention and in unexpected ways.

A small population of wild hippopotamuses has recently established in South America. The nicknamed “cocaine hippos” are the offspring of animals who escaped the abandoned hacienda of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

Colombia’s growing ‘cocaine hippo’ population is descended from animals kept at Pablo Escobar’s hacienda.

By insisting that only idealised pre-human ecosystems are worth conserving, we overlook the fact that these emerging new forms of wilderness are not only common but critical to the survival of many existing ecosystems.

Vital functions

Megafauna are Earth’s tree-breakers, wood-eaters, hole-diggers, trailblazers, wallowers, nutrient-movers, and seed-carriers. By consuming coarse, fibrous plant matter they drive nutrient cycles that enrich soils, restructure plant communities, and help other species to survive.

The wide wanderings of megafauna move nutrients uphill that would otherwise wash downstream and into the oceans. These animals can be thought of as “nutrient pumps” that help maintain soil fertility. Megafauna also sustain communities of scavengers and predators.

In North America, we have found that introduced wild donkeys, locally known as “burros”, dig wells more than a metre deep to reach groundwater. At least 31 species use these wells, and in certain conditions they become nurseries for germinating trees.

Introduced wild donkeys (burros) are engineering the Sonoran Desert, United States.

The removal of donkeys and other introduced megafauna to protect desert springs in North America and Australia seems to have led to an exuberant growth of wetland vegetation that constricted open water habitat, dried some springs, and ultimately resulted in the extinction of native fish. Ironically, land managers now simulate megafauna by manually removing vegetation.

It is likely that introduced megafauna are doing much more that remains unknown because we have yet to accept these organisms as having ecological value.

Living in a feral world

Like any other species, the presence of megafauna benefits some species while challenging others. Introduced megafauna can put huge pressure on plant communities, but this is also true of native megafauna.

Whether we consider the ecological roles of introduced species like burros and brumbies as desirable or not depends primarily on our own values. But one thing is certain: no species operates in isolation.

Although megafauna are very large, predators can have significant influence on them. In Australia, dingo packs act cooperatively to hunt wild donkeys, wild horses, wild water buffalo and wild boar. In North America, mountain lions have been shown to limit populations of wild horses in some areas of Nevada.

Visions of protected dingoes hunting introduced donkeys and Sambar deer in Australia, or protected wolves hunting introduced Oryx and horses in the American West, can give us a new perspective on conserving both native and introduced species.

Nature doesn’t stand still. Dispensing with visions of historic wilderness, and the associated brutal measures usually applied to enforce those ideals, and focusing on the wilderness that exists is both pragmatic and optimistic.

After all, in this age of mass extinction, are not all species worth conserving?


The ConversationThis research will be presented at the 2017 International Compassionate Conservation Conference in Sydney.

Erick Lundgren, PhD Student, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney; Arian Wallach, Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney; Daniel Ramp, Associate Professor and Director, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney, and William Ripple, Distinguished Professor and Director, Trophic Cascades Program, Oregon State University

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

Guam’s forests are being slowly killed off – by a snake



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Guam’s trees are struggling without the birds that spread their seeds.
Author provided

Elizabeth Wandrag, University of Canberra and Haldre Rogers, Iowa State University

Can a snake bring down a forest? If we’re talking about the Pacific island of Guam, the answer may well be yes.

Our research adds to mounting evidence that the killing of many of the island’s bird species by an invasive species of snake is having severe knock-on effects for Guam’s trees, which rely on the birds to spread their seeds.

Invasive predators are known to wreak havoc on native animal populations, but our study shows how the knock-on effects can be bad news for native forests too.

Globally, invasive predators have been implicated in the extinction of 142 bird, mammal and reptile species, with a further 596 species classed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. But the indirect effects of these extinctions on entire ecosystems such as forests are much harder to study.


Read more: Invasive predators are eating the world’s animals to extinction – and the worst is close to home.


The brown tree snake was accidentally introduced to Guam in the mid-1940s and rapidly spread across the island. At the same time, bird populations on Guam mysteriously began to decline. For years, no one knew why.

In 1987 the US ecologist Julie Savidge provided conclusive evidence that the two were linked: the brown tree snake was eating the island’s birds. Today, 10 of Guam’s 12 original forest bird species have been lost. The remaining two are considered functionally extinct.

The brown tree snake has caused a cascade of problems.
Isaac Chellman, Author provided

But the ecological damage doesn’t stop there. The loss of native bird species has triggered some unexpected changes in Guam’s forests. Both the establishment of new trees and the diversity of those trees is falling. These changes show how an invasive predator can indirectly yet significantly alter an entire ecosystem.

Birds and trees

Birds are very important to trees. In the tropics, up to 90% of tree species rely on animals, often birds, to spread their seeds. Birds eat fruit from the trees and then defecate the undigested seeds far away from the parent tree’s canopy, where there are fewer predators and pathogens that specialise on that species, where competition for light, water and nutrients is less intense, and where seeds can take advantage of promising new real estate when old trees die.

Without birds, roughly 95% of seeds of two common tree species on Guam (Psychotria mariana and Premna serratifolia) land directly beneath their parent tree. Compare that with the nearby islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota – none of which have brown tree snakes – where less than 40% of seeds land near their parent tree. On Saipan, seeds that escape their parent tree are five times more likely to survive.

Close neighbours, but very different situations.
Author provided

What’s more, passing through the gut of an animal can actually increase the likelihood that a seed will germinate. On Guam, seeds that had been eaten by birds were two to four times more likely to germinate than those that hadn’t.

Overall, for the roughly 70% of tree species on Guam that rely on birds to spread their seeds, research suggests that the bird deaths caused by the brown tree snake have reduced the establishment of new tree seedlings by 61-92%, depending on the species.

Forests’ future threatened

These numbers suggest that many tree species in Guam are under serious threat, which in turn threatens the species diversity of the island’s forests.

Our new research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the number of seedling species growing in treefall gaps on Guam compared with Saipan and Rota, which still have their birds.

Treefall gaps appear when an adult tree dies, opening up the canopy and increasing the light that reaches the forest floor. Many species rely on this increased light for germination and early growth, so these gaps are hotspots for new seedlings.

Birds such as the Mariana fruit dove are a big help to the islands’ trees.
Lainie Berry, Author provided

We found that Saipan and Rota had roughly double the number of species of seedlings growing in these gaps, compared with Guam. What’s more, seedling species on Guam tended to be clumped together, as you might expect if more than 90% of seeds are falling beneath their parent trees.

We also found that birds are important in moving the seeds of certain types of species to gaps. In forests, “pioneer species” are those that rapidly colonise gaps, exploiting the increased light to grow fast and reproduce young. Crucially, we found pioneer species in all gaps on islands with birds, but in very few gaps on Guam, where these species could be at risk of being lost entirely.


Read more: Pristine paradise to rubbish dump: the same Pacific island, 23 years apart.


Invasive predators are a reality for many ecosystems, particularly on islands, and the situation on Guam is particularly extreme. Perhaps nowhere else in the world has experienced such dramatic losses of native fauna as a result of invasion.

The ConversationWhile these direct impacts of invasion are astounding, the indirect impacts cascading through the ecosystem are just starting to unfold, and may prove to be similarly catastrophic.

Elizabeth Wandrag, Postdoctoral Fellow, Ecology, University of Canberra and Haldre Rogers, Assistant Professor, Iowa State University

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

‘Gene drives’ could wipe out whole populations of pests in one fell swoop



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Gene drives aim to deliberately spread bad genes when invasive species such as mice reproduce.
Colin Robert Varndell/shutterstock.com

Thomas Prowse, University of Adelaide; Joshua Ross, University of Adelaide; Paul Thomas, University of Adelaide, and Phill Cassey, University of Adelaide

What if there was a humane, targeted way to wipe out alien pest species such as mice, rats and rabbits, by turning their own genes on themselves so they can no longer reproduce and their population collapses?

Gene drives – a technique that involves deliberately spreading a faulty gene throughout a population – promises to do exactly that.

Conservationists are understandably excited about the possibility of using gene drives to clear islands of invasive species and allow native species to flourish.


Read more: Gene drives may cause a revolution, but safeguards and public engagement are needed.


Hype surrounding the technique continues to build, despite serious biosecurity, regulatory and ethical questions surrounding this emerging technology.

Our study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that under certain circumstances, genome editing could work.

The penguins on Antipodes Island currently live alongside a 200,000-strong invasive mouse population.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Good and bad genes

The simplest way to construct a gene drive aimed at suppressing a pest population is to identify a gene that is essential for the pest species’ reproduction or embryonic development. A new DNA sequence – the gene-drive “cassette” – is then inserted into that gene to disrupt its function, creating a faulty version (or “allele”) of that gene.

Typically, faulty alleles would not spread through populations, because the evolutionary fitness of individuals carrying them is reduced, meaning they will be less likely than non-faulty alleles to be passed on to the next generation. But the newly developed CRISPR gene-editing technology can cheat natural selection by creating gene-drive sequences that are much more likely to be passed on to the next generation.


Read more: Now we can edit life itself, we need to ask how we should use such technology.


Here’s how the trick works. The gene-drive cassette contains the genetic information to make two new products: an enzyme that cuts DNA, and a molecule called a guide RNA. These products act together as a tiny pair of molecular scissors that cuts the second (normal) copy of the target gene.

To fix the cut, the cell uses the gene drive sequence as a repair template. This results in a copy of the gene drive (and therefore the faulty gene) on both chromosomes.

This process is called “homing” and, when switched on in the egg- or sperm-producing cells of an animal, it should guarantee that almost all of their offspring inherit the gene-drive sequence.

As the gene-drive sequence spreads, mating between carriers becomes more likely, producing offspring that possess two faulty alleles and are therefore sterile or fail to develop past the embryonic stage.

Will it work?

Initial attempts to develop suppression drives will likely focus on invasive species with rapid life cycles that allow gene drives to spread rapidly. House mice are an obvious candidate because they have lots of offspring, they have been studied in great detail by biologists, and have colonised vast areas of the world, including islands.

In our study we developed a mathematical model to predict whether gene drives can realistically be used to eradicate invasive mice from islands.

Our results show that this strategy can work. We predict that a single introduction of just 100 mice carrying a gene drive could eradicate a population of 50,000 mice within four to five years.

But it will only work if the process of genetic homing – which acts to overcome natural selection – functions as planned.

Evolution fights back

Just as European rabbits in Australia have developed resistance to the viruses introduced to control them, evolution could thwart attempts to use gene drives for biocontrol.

Experiments with non-vertebrate species show that homing can fail in some circumstances. For example, the DNA break can be repaired by an alternative mechanism that stitches the broken DNA sequence back together without copying the gene-drive template. This also destroys the DNA sequence targeted by the guide RNA, producing a “resistance allele” that can never receive the gene drive.

A recent study in mosquitos estimated that resistance alleles were formed in at least 2% of homing attempts. Our simulation experiments for mice confirm this presents a serious problem.

After accounting for low failure rates during homing, the creation and spread of resistance alleles allowed the modelled populations to rebound after an initial decline in abundance. Imperfect homing therefore threatens the ability of gene drives to eradicate or even suppress pest populations.

One potential solution to this problem is to encode multiple guide RNAs within the gene-drive cassette, each targeting a different DNA sequence. This should reduce homing failure rates by allowing “multiple shots on goal”, and avoiding the creation of resistance alleles in more cases.

To wipe out a population of 200,000 mice living on an island, we calculate that the gene-drive sequences would need to contain at least three different guide RNA sequences, to avoid the mice ultimately getting the better of our attempts to eradicate them.

From hype to reality

Are gene drives a hyperdrive to pest control, or just hype? Part of the answer will come from experiments with gene drives on laboratory mice (with appropriate containment). That will help to provide crucial data to inform the debate about their possible deployment.

The ConversationWe also need more sophisticated computer modelling to predict the impacts on non-target populations if introduced gene drives were to spread beyond the populations targeted for management. Using simulation, it will be possible to test the performance and safety of different gene-drive strategies, including strategies that involve multiple drives operating on multiple genes.

Thomas Prowse, Postdoctoral research fellow, School of Mathematical Sciences, University of Adelaide; Joshua Ross, Associate Professor in Applied Mathematics, University of Adelaide; Paul Thomas, , University of Adelaide, and Phill Cassey, Assoc Prof in Invasion Biogeography and Biosecurity, University of Adelaide

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

Who’s afraid of the giant African land snail? Perhaps we shouldn’t be



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Giant African land snails can grow up to 15cm long.
Author provided

Luke S. O’Loughlin, La Trobe University and Peter Green, La Trobe University

The giant African land snail is a poster child of a global epidemic: the threat of invasive species. The snails are native to coastal East Africa, but are now found across Asia, the Pacific and the Americas – in fact, almost all tropical mainlands and islands except mainland Australia.

Yet, despite their fearsome reputation, our research on Christmas Island’s invasive snail population suggests the risk they pose to native ecosystems has been greatly exaggerated.

Giant African land snails certainly have the classic characteristics of a successful invader: they can thrive in lots of different places; survive on a broad diet; reach reproductive age quickly; and produce more than 1,000 eggs in a lifetime. Add it all together and you have a species recognised as among the worst invaders in the world.

The snails can eat hundreds of plant species, including vegetable crops (and even calcium-rich plaster and stucco), and have been described as a major threat to agriculture.

They have been intercepted at Australian ports, and the Department of Primary Industries concurs that the snails are a “serious threat”.

Despite all this, there have been no dedicated studies of their environmental impact. Some researchers suggest the risk to agriculture has been exaggerated from accounts of damage in gardens. There are no accounts of giant African land snails destroying natural ecosystems.

Quietly eating leaf litter

In research recently published in the journal Austral Ecology, we tested these assumptions by investigating giant African land snails living in native rainforest on Christmas Island.

Giant African land snails have spread through Christmas Island with the help of another invasive species: the yellow crazy ant.

Until these ants showed up, abundant native red land crabs ate the giant snails before they could gain a foothold in the rainforest. Unfortunately, yellow crazy ants have completely exterminated the crabs in some parts of the island, allowing the snails to flourish.

We predicted that the snails, which eat a broad range of food, would have a significant impact on leaf litter and seedling survival.

Unexpectedly, the snails we observed on Christmas Island confined themselves to eating small amounts of leaf litter.
Author provided

However, our evidence didn’t support this at all. Using several different approaches – including a field experiment, lab experiment and observational study – we found giant African land snails were pretty much just eating a few dead leaves and little else.

We almost couldn’t distinguish between leaf litter removal by the snails compared to natural decomposition. They were eating leaf litter, but not a lot of it.

We saw almost no impact on seedling survival, and the snails were almost never seen eating live foliage. In one lab trial, we attempted to feed snails an exclusive diet of fresh leaves, but so many of these snails died that we had to cut the experiment short. Perhaps common Christmas Island plants just aren’t palatable.

It’s possible that the giant African land snails are causing other problems on Christmas Island. In Florida, for example, they carry parasites that are a risk to human health. But for the key ecological processes we investigated, the snails do not create the kind of disturbance we would assume from their large numbers.

We effectively excluded snails from an area by lining a fence with copper tape.
Author provided

The assumption that giant African land snails are dangerous to native plants and agriculture comes from an overriding sentiment that invasive species are damaging and must be controlled.

Do we have good data on the ecological impact of all invasive species? Of course not. Should we still try to control all abundant invasive species even if we don’t have evidence they are causing harm? That’s a more difficult question.

The precautionary principle drives much of the thinking behind the management of invasive species, including the giant African land snail. The cost of doing nothing is potentially very high, so it’s safest to assume invasive species are having an effect (especially when they exist in high numbers).

But we should also be working hard to test these assumptions. Proper monitoring and experiments give us a true picture of the risks of action (or inaction).

The ConversationIn reality, the giant African land snail is more the poster child of our own knee-jerk reaction to abundant invaders.

Luke S. O’Loughlin, Research fellow, La Trobe University and Peter Green, Head of Department, Ecology, Environment and Evolution, La Trobe University

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

Are Australia’s native pigeons sitting ducks?



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These migratory pied imperial-pigeons in Far North Queensland, like many of Australia’s 22 species of native pigeons and doves, play an important role in our ecosystems but may be at risk from emerging viruses in domestic pigeons.
Dejan Stojanovic, CC BY-SA

Andrew Peters, Charles Sturt University

The word “pigeon” evokes thoughts of gentle cooing, fluttering in rafters, and poo-encrusted statues. The species responsible for the encrustation is deeply familiar to us, having ridden waves of European expansionism to inhabit every continent, including Australia. First domesticated thousands of years ago, urban pigeons have turned feral again.

Less familiar are the native species that are not your stereotypical pigeons: a posse of pointy-headed crested pigeons in a suburban park, or a flock of topknot pigeons feeding in a camphor laurel.

Crested pigeons (left), brush bronzewings (centre) and pied imperial-pigeons (right) are amongst the 22 species of native pigeons and doves in Australia. Their charm and beauty belies the important functions they play in ecosystems.
Author provided

Australia and its neighbouring islands are the global epicentre of pigeon and dove (or “columbid”) diversity with the highest density of different columbids – an impressive 134 species – found in the region. Twenty-two of these native species are found in Australia alone, in just about every habitat.

These native species play an important role in ecosystem functioning: they forage for and disperse seeds, concentrate nutrients in the environment, and are a source of food for predators. Fruit doves for example, are zealous fruitarians, and the region’s tropical rainforests depend on them for tree diversity. Where fruit-doves have disappeared in the South Pacific, numerous plant species have lost an effective dispersal mechanism.

The rose-crowned fruit-dove is not only beautiful but also plays an important role in dispersing seeds in Australian rainforests.
Author provided

The future of Australia’s native pigeons however, may depend on our domestic pigeons. Australia’s domestic pigeon population — both feral and captive – is large and interconnected by frequent local and interstate movements. Pigeon racing, for example, involves releasing captive birds hundreds of kilometres from their homes only so they may find their way back. While most birds do navigate home, up to 20% will not return, of which some will join feral pigeon populations. Birds are also traded across the country and illegally from overseas. These movements, together with poor biosecurity practices, mean that captive pigeons can and do mingle with feral domestic pigeons.

And here’s a paradox. Could Australia’s feral domestic pigeons become the vector for a dramatic decline of columbids – native species on which Australian ecosystems rely?

Emerging viral epidemics

In recent years, two notable infectious diseases have been found to affect our captive domestic pigeons: the pigeon paramyxovirus type 1 (PPMV1) and a new strain of the pigeon rotavirus (G18P). These diseases are notable because in captive domestic flocks they are both spectacularly lethal and difficult to control.

PPMV1, although likely to have originated overseas, is now endemic in Australia. This virus has jumped from captive to feral domestic pigeon populations on several occasions, but fortunately has yet to establish in feral populations.

Domestic pigeons suffer high mortality rates after being infected with either pigeon paramyxovirus ‘PPMV1’ or pigeon rotavirus ‘G18P’.
Dr Colin Walker

G18P is thought to have spread to Victoria and South Australia from a bird auction in Perth in 2016. PPMV1 also spread rapidly to multiple states following its first appearance in Melbourne in 2011.

The movements of captive pigeons, and their contact with their feral counterparts, can be the route through which virulent and lethal diseases – such as the PPMV1 and the G18P – may spread to Australia’s native columbids.

Pigeon paramyxovirus and pigeon rotavirus are known to have escaped from captive domestic pigeons into feral domestic pigeons (black arrow). The risk is that these viruses will establish in feral pigeon populations and cause epidemics in our diverse and ecologically important wild native columbids (red arrow).
Author provided

What have we got to lose?

Fortunately, neither PPMV1 nor G18P has crossed over to Australia’s native columbids. We can’t say how likely this is, or how serious the consequences would be, because we have not previously observed such viral infections among our native pigeons.

If the viruses prove equally lethal to native columbids as they are to domestic pigeons, we could see catastrophic population declines across numerous columbid species in Australia over a short period of time.

Should these viruses spread (via feral domestic pigeons), the control and containment of losses among our native pigeon species would be near impossible. Such a nightmare scenario can only be avoided by predicting if and how these viruses might “spill over” into wild columbids so that we can prevent this in the first place.

Maps of Australia showing the overlapping distribution of our 22 native pigeon and dove species (left) and the distribution (in orange) and verified individual records (red dots) of introduced feral domestic pigeons (right).
Atlas of Living Australia, Birdlife International

Protecting our pigeons

Agricultural poultry is routinely screened to check their vulnerability to threats like the PPMV1 and G18P. Such screening is an appropriate response to protect our agricultural industry.

For our native pigeons and doves however, no such similar testing is planned. Based on progress in veterinary vaccine development and advancements in understanding of feral pigeon control, the knowledge and technology required to mitigate this threat should be relatively inexpensive. The threat for these species can be actively managed, now, by improving our biosecurity and vaccination programs for captive domestic pigeons, and eradicating feral domestic pigeons.

The ConversationThe protection of our native columbids however, ultimately relies on valuing their ecosystem functions in the first place.

Andrew Peters, Senior Lecturer in Veterinary Pathology, Charles Sturt University

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