Returning a lost process by reintroducing a locally extinct digging marsupial

Nicola T. Munro*, Sue McIntyre, Ben Macdonald, Saul A. Cunningham, Iain J. Gordon, Ross B. Cunningham, Adrian D. Manning

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    15 Citations (Scopus)

    Abstract

    The eastern bettong (Bettongia gaimardi), a medium-sized digging marsupial, was reintroduced to a predator-free reserve after 100 years of absence from the Australian mainland. The bettong may have the potential to restore temperate woodlands degraded by a history of livestock grazing, by creating numerous small disturbances by digging. We investigated the digging capacity of the bettong and compared this to extant fauna, to answer the first key question of whether this species could be considered an ecosystem engineer, and ultimately if it has the capacity to restore lost ecological processes. We found that eastern bettongs were frequent diggers and, at a density of 0.3-0.4 animals ha-1, accounted for over half the total foraging pits observed (55%), with echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus), birds and feral rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) accounting for the rest. We estimated that the population of bettongs present dug 985 kg of soil per ha per year in our study area. Bettongs dug more where available phosphorus was higher, where there was greater basal area of Acacia spp. and where kangaroo grazing was less. There was no effect on digging of eucalypt stem density or volume of logs on the ground. While bettong digging activity was more frequent under trees, digging also occurred in open grassland, and bettongs were the only species observed to dig in scalds (areas where topsoil has eroded to the B Horizon). These results highlight the potential for bettongs to enhance soil processes in a way not demonstrated by the existing fauna (native birds and echidna), and introduced rabbit.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article numbere6622
    JournalPeerJ
    Volume2019
    Issue number5
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 2019

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