How dingoes could be shaping Australia’s landscape

May 10, 2017

By Emma Marris

Dingoes can wreak havoc on Australia’s sheep population, so the canines have been fenced off from a large section of the country. But new research suggests that excluding dingoes can lead to a population boom in their preferred prey, kangaroos, that can change the plant composition of the landscape and even the soil chemistry. The finding is the latest addition in a long and contentious dispute about the effects of dingoes on Australia’s ecosystems.

That debate is part of a wider discussion on ‘trophic cascades’ — the idea that top predators change the behaviour and numbers of herbivores, which then affect the vegetation and the soil composition of a habitat. The latest research, published on 10 May in Proceedings of the Royal Society B1, doesn’t resolve the debate, but it does contribute a controlled experiment to a field criticized for relying on weak inference2.

The study was made possible by a 5,400-kilometre dingo-proof fence — which stretches across Australia’s outback — which was built decades ago to keep the predators away from livestock. But the fence has also created an inadvertent experiment, because “two completely different ecological universes” have emerged, says ecologist Michael Letnic of the University of New South Wales in Sydney. There are obvious differences in the numbers of kangaroos, and in the kinds and amounts of plants between the two sides. There is more grass on the dingo side, and more woody vegetation, such as trees and shrubs, on the kangaroo side.

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