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Poisoning Dingoes Has Domino Effect on Australia’s Biodiversity

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dingoAustralia has a long history of poisoning its dingoes (Canis lupus dingo), which have an unfair reputation of preying on sheep and other livestock. But according to a new study, killing the country’s native canines may have had unintended consequences, dramatically impacting the biodiversity in regions where dingo populations have been reduced or removed.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and other institutions, looked at 14 forested sites in that southeastern Australian province. Half of the sites experienced dingo poisoning during the prior five years. The rest had minimal dingo control efforts. The sites were divided into seven pairs, each with one poisoning site. The researchers then studied the local flora and fauna by directly observing them, identifying footprints and capturing small mammals in baited traps.

The results were striking: In each of the areas where dingoes had been poisoned, the researchers found increased numbers of large plant-eating mammals, such as kangaroos and wallabies. These places also harbored higher numbers of red foxes (Vulpes vulpes), one of the worst invasive species in Australia. All of those species normally make ready prey for dingoes and they appear to have thrived in the latter’s absence.

red foxBut that wasn’t all. Both the herbivores and the foxes needed more food as their populations increased. The researchers found that grazing by the kangaroos and wallabies reduced the amount of vegetative ground cover available to a variety of small mammals and rodents such as possums and bandicoots. This decline then appears to have exposed the smaller animals to predation by the foxes, causing their populations to drop.

“Predation by foxes is one of the most important threats to small native mammals,” the study’s lead author, UNSW fellow Mike Letnic, said in a press release. “Dingoes should not be poisoned if we want to halt the loss of mammal biodiversity in Australia.” He called the poisoning of dingoes “counterproductive for biodiversity conservation,” although he acknowledged that either maintaining or restoring dingo populations would be controversial. “We need to develop strategies to maintain the balance of nature by keeping dingoes in the bush, while minimizing their impacts on livestock,” he said.

The study was published March 11 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Dingo photo by Pavel Sigarteu. Red fox photographed in NWS by Harley Kingston. Both used under Creative Commons license

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. tuned 7:02 pm 03/20/2014

    I have a red fox come through the yard occasionally.
    I love it.
    I would hate it if it were several.
    Just keeping pests away such as raccoons is a chore. They get savvy. They work at night. They often roam in families. They cause a lot of damage when they get in the wrong places.
    Dingoes are a hazard to children and pets. When you have to cull it’s not pleasant, but necessary.
    I would agree traps are better.

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  2. 2. Owl905 8:54 pm 03/20/2014

    Nothing surprising at all; some days you get the fox, some days you get the dog.
    The old focus was collapse from below – when it was ‘the food chain’. As the understanding evolved into the food web, the abrupt bloom or collapse of an apex species re-arranged the proportions throughout the web. The curious part about this article is testing the application of the theory of alternate levels – the upper depletion is theorized to hit hardest on the level below the next level.

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  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:36 am 03/21/2014

    What conservationists define as desired outcome: high populations of endangered species, high populations of all animals, populations like when Europeans appeared (that is, with a long history of Aboriginal land management)? Without making this clear, conservation in Australia is a sort of ‘gut feeling’.

    And practically, I wonder what about poisoning dingos AND foxes? Or reintroducing Tasmanian devils, which lived on mainland Australia, apparently eat foxes but cannot survive with dingos?

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