Endangered dusky mouse protected by dingoes

By Grant Lubyckij 6 February 2015
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While the feral cats are away, the dusky hopping mice can come out to play – thanks to the help of dingoes

THE DINGO MAY BE the unlikely saviour of the native and endangered dusky hopping mouse (Notomys fuscus), new research reveals. 

Higher numbers of the dusky hopping mouse have been recorded in Central Australia’s Strzelecki Desert, which has a healthy population of dingoes, compared to other areas the native mouse inhabits.

An apex predator, the dingo seems to be offering indirect protection to the dusky hopping mouse by hunting on its predator: feral cats.

“There is a two-way effect between dingoes and cats. The dingoes supress cat abundance by outcompeting for food resources; cats also provide a food resource for them” says lead authour of the study, Christopher Gordon, from the University of Western Sydney.

The numbers of dingoes, cats and hopping mice were detected using nocturnal spotlight and sand plot techniques, over 47 sites.

When the feral cat’s away, the mice play

The dingoes’ presence also encouraged behavioural changes in dusky hopping mice, says Christopher. With fewer feral cats around, the dusky hopping mice were less fearful of coming out to forage for food.

“The hopping mouse is thinking ‘I’m less likely to be eaten by a dingo, so I’ll spend more time feeding’, instead of it having to look up in fear of predators”, Chris says.

Christopher tested this concept by placing small feeding trays in open areas where either feral cat or dingo numbers were high.

Feeding trays containing 40 hopbush seeds were filled each night before dusk, and counted the following morning. Significantly more seeds were consumed at the sites where dingoes rule.

Introducing the dingo as a guardian

The study provides evidence that ‘size-dependant predation’ occurs when dingoes are absent or in low-density, says Christopher. This is where smaller predators, such as feral cats and foxes, whittle down populations of prey species like the dusky hopping mouse, which are too small to be hunted by apex predators.

The study suggests dingoes could be introduced to areas with small mammals that are hit hardest by feral cats, which hunt more than 400 of Australia’s animal species.

“Dingoes as conservation tools… It’s a really good idea, a cost effective and natural way of managing our landscapes” Christopher says. However, he adds that more research is required to investigate the wider impacts of such strategies, and an even greater effort is required to convince Australian pastoralists.

The study was published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.