13 August 2009

A helpful invasive species?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgIntroduced species can wreak havoc on the ecosystems they invade. But what happens after they've been established for centuries? A new study in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society suggests that, in one case, an introduced species has actually become an important part of the native ecosystem -- and helps protect native species from another invader [$-a].



Dingoes (above) control red
foxes, which is good for native
critters.
Photos by ogwen and
HyperViper.
The introduced species in question is the Australian dingo, the wild descendant of domestic dogs [$-a] that moved Down Under with the first humans to settle the continent. Today, 5,000 years after their introduction, dingoes are the largest predator in much of Australia, and they were a prominent part of the ecosystem encountered by European settlers. Europeans, like previous waves of human arrivals, brought their own domestic and semi-domestic animals -- including red foxes, which prey on small native mammals.

The new study's authors hypothesized that because dingoes reduce red fox activity both through direct predation and through competition for larger prey species, dingoes should reduce fox predation on the smallest native mammals. At the same time, dingoes prey on kangaroos, the largest herbivore in the Australian bush -- and reducing kangaroo populations should increase grass cover, providing more habitat for small native mammals. When the authors compared study sites with dingoes present to sites where dingoes had been excluded to protect livestock, this is what they found: increased grass cover, and greater diversity of small native mammals where dingoes were present.

Recently a news article in Nature discussed ragamuffin earth [$-a] -- the idea that human interference in nature has so dramatically changed natural systems that it may often be impossible to restore "pristine" ecological communities. In these cases, some ecologists say, conservation efforts might be better focused on how to maintain and improve the diversity and productivity of the novel ecosystems we've inadvertently created. It looks as though the dingo could be a poster child for exactly this approach.

References

Letnic, M., Koch, F., Gordon, C., Crowther, M., & Dickman, C. (2009). Keystone effects of an alien top-predator stem extinctions of native mammals Proc. R. Soc. B, 276 (1671), 3249-3256 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0574

Marris, E. (2009). Ecology: Ragamuffin Earth Nature, 460 (7254), 450-3 DOI: 10.1038/460450a

Savolainen, P. (2004). A detailed picture of the origin of the Australian dingo, obtained from the study of mitochondrial DNA Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, 101 (33), 12387-90 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0401814101

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