New paper: ‘Digging up the dirt: Quantifying the effects on soil of a translocated ecosystem engineer’

Halstead, LM., Sutherland, DS., Valentine, LE., Rendall, AR., Coetsee, AL., Ritchie, EG.

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M: soil moisture; S: soil strength. Figure source: Halstead et al. 2020

Abstract

Digging mammals are often considered ecosystem engineers, as they affect important properties of soils and in turn nutrient exchange, vegetation dynamics and habitat quality. Returning such species, and their functions, to areas from where they have been extirpated could help restore degraded landscapes and is increasingly being trialled as a conservation tool. Studies examining the effects of digging mammals have largely been from arid and semi-arid environments, with little known about their impacts and importance in mesic systems. To address this knowledge gap, we investigated the ecological role of a recently introduced population of eastern barred bandicoots (Perameles gunnii) on Churchill island, Victoria, south-eastern Australia, from which digging mammals have been lost. We quantified the annual rate of soil turnover by estimating the number of foraging pits bandicoots created in 100-m² plots over a 24-h period. Foraging pit counts could not be completed in each season, and the overall turnover estimate assumes that autumn/winter months represent turnover rates for the entire year; however, this is likely to fluctuate between seasons. Ten fresh and ten old pits were compared to paired undug control sites to quantify the effect soil disturbance had on soil hydrophobicity, moisture content and soil strength. Plots contained between zero and 64 new foraging pits per night, displacing ~13.15 kg (95% CI = 11.2-14.2 kg) of soil, equating to ~400 kg (95% CI = 341 – 431 kg) of soil in a winter month. Foraging pits were associated with decreased soil compaction and increased soil moisture along the foraging pit profile. Eastern barred bandicoots likely play an important role in ecosystems through their effects on soil, which adds an increasing body of knowledge suggesting restoration of ecosystems, via the return of ecosystem engineers and their functions, hold much promise for conserving biodiversity and ecological function.

Read more in our conversation article, or the full research paper

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