1. RESTORING ECOSYSTEM FUNCTION
Recent advances in conservation science have broadened our understanding about how to best achieve our biodiversity conservation goals. I'm interested in how we can restore ecosystems and their function to achieve conservation objectives.
We know that predators play an especially important role in ecosystem function owing to their pervasive effects on other species, mainly via predation and competition. In Australia, our largest terrestrial predator is the dingo (Canis dingo). Much of my research is focussed on understanding the dingo's role in suppressing introduced foxes and cats and the subsequent benefits this has for our many threatened small and medium-sized native mammal species.
A short animation I made describing the basic concept of dingo-induced trophic cascades in forest ecosystems of Australia.
2. reintroducing species
In many parts of eastern Australia dingoes are lethally controlled because they predate on sheep. As a consequence many areas of eastern Australia are devoid of top-predator (dingo). My research in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area suggests that a series of negative cascading events follow dingo removal. Mainly, foxes and cats become over-abundant, there are irruptions of large grazing species like kangaroos and wombats and our small and medium native mammal species lose out.
In order to mitigate this degradation of the ecosystem we (co-authors and I) decided to model the reintroduction of the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harissi) back to mainland Australia. Devils once existed on the mainland but dingoes were likely involved in their demise. Thus, we proposed that devils could exist in the many areas where dingoes have become extinct or functionally extinct as a result of lethal control. You can read our paper, Hunter et al. (2015) in Biological Conservation here.
We found that devils have similar effects as dingoes. However, these effects are in most cases much weaker. Our research suggests that devils could possibly be an effective surrogate for dingoes in forest ecosystems of eastern Australia. What's more, devils are currently undergoing serious declines owing to the devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). A healthy, wild population of devils on the mainland could act as an insurance population in the event that the Tasmanian population became extinct. The next step is to conduct carefully controlled, free-ranging captive trials to test these model predictions and the feasibility of a wild release of devils.