In the absence of an apex predator, irruptive herbivores suppress grass seed production: Implications for small granivores

Full citation: 
In the absence of an apex predator, irruptive herbivores suppress grass seed production: Implications for small granivores, Biological Conservation, Volume 213, Part A, September 2017, Pages 13-18, ISSN 0006-3207,
Author/s associated with the CES: 
Richard Kingsford
Mike Letnic


Many examples exist of species disappearing shortly after the extinction of a previously co-occurring apex predator, however processes connecting these events are often obscure. In Australian deserts, dingo Canis dingo eradication is associated with declines in abundances of small granivorous birds, even though dingoes and these flying birds rarely directly interact. We hypothesised that dingoes facilitate small granivores by reducing populations of large, grazing kangaroos Macropus spp., thereby increasing grass seed production and availability. To test this prediction, we monitored kangaroo abundances and surveyed grass seed production and biomass of native pastures in matched, desert habitats with dingoes and where dingoes were functionally extinct. Dingo absence was associated with 99.9% greater abundances of kangaroos, 88% - 98% lower pasture biomasses and 85% - 97% lower densities of grass seed heads. To test that these vegetation effects were related to kangaroo grazing, we constructed large herbivore exclosures in areas where dingoes where functionally extinct and there were no grazing livestock. After three years of kangaroo exclusion, pasture biomass and grass seed production were each 87% greater than in adjacent, grazed control plots. Regeneration of vegetation within the kangaroo exclosures demonstrated that kangaroo grazing was responsible for the differences in native pastures we had observed associated with the functional extinction of dingoes. Our results indicate that reduction of grass seed availability by kangaroo grazing is a likely explanation for the relative rarity of small granivorous birds in areas where dingoes are functionally extinct. In areas where apex predators have been eradicated, reintroducing and conserving apex predators or intensively controlling mammalian herbivores would be necessary to mitigate destructive herbivory.

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