Modern science is helping to understand the dingo’s place in Australia.
As the largest predator in arid Australia, dingoes have major impacts on ecosystems. These impacts can be both good and bad, and understanding their role is critical for the future of Australian conservation. This is why Arid Recovery created the largest experimental paddock in Australia for this purpose and is doing research to understand them.
The dingo’s history in Australia began about 4,000 years ago, when they were brought to the continent by Asian seafarers.
In the millennia that followed, they became established on the Australian mainland and deeply embedded in the culture of Australia’s Indigenous societies. Following the mainland extinction of the Thylacine ~3,200 years ago, dingoes became the continent’s sole large mammalian predator, alongside humans.
~240 years ago, Europeans settled the continent, bringing with them sheep and cattle farming practises, as well as European wildlife such as rabbits, cats and foxes, which are currently wreaking havoc on Australia’s wildlife.
In an attempt to protect livestock, dingoes began to be heavily persecuted throughout much of the continent, to the point that they have disappeared across much of New South Wales, Victoria, SE South Australia and southern Western Australia.
One of the largest man-made structures on Earth, Australia’s Dog Fence stretches 5,614km from SW South Australia to SE Queensland, clearly marking where dingoes are most heavily controlled (south of the fence). Its construction was completed in 1885. It also runs straight through the Arid Recovery Reserve.
Arid Recovery Research
Arid Recovery’s research has focussed on how dingoes interact with feral cats and foxes. This research has shown good evidence that dingoes are effective at controlling both species, especially foxes.
In 2007, Arid Recovery created the largest research paddock for dingoes in Australia – the 37km2 Dingo Paddock was constructed north of the Dog Fence. This large paddock was created for conducting landscape-scale experiments in a manageable setting. The pen is on ex-pastoral land and contains many wild animals; such as kangaroos, rabbits, birds, reptiles and native rodents.
In 2008, two wild-caught dingoes were released into the Dingo Pen, followed in 2009 by six foxes and seven feral cats. Every fox, cat and dingo was fitted with a GPS collar so that we could closely monitor their activity and interactions.
We found that within 17 days, the dingoes killed every fox. All feral cats died between 20-103 days after release, with dingoes being responsible for at least half the deaths. Once a kill had been made, the dingoes would spend several hours in the same area, and often return to the site over the next few days.
Rather than by active hunting, it appeared that dingoes would hunt cats and foxes opportunistically. The core home ranges of the cats and foxes were in separate areas to those of the dingoes, despite them having similar habitat requirements. This suggests that the presence of dingoes is enough to create cat and fox free spaces.
The implication of this is that, whilst it may sound counter-intuitive, top predators can encourage biodiversity. By killing or displacing cats and foxes, dingoes keep overall predation rates much lower, and this can help rare species to survive.
Having dingoes around, however, cannot remove all predation risk, and dingoes themselves pose risks to native species. When burrowing bettongs were released outside of the Arid Recovery fence in both 2008 and 2013, predation by dingoes was a key reason why they failed to establish.
Wider Australian research
Elsewhere in Australia, research is showing that dingo predation can benefit both native ecosystems and agriculture by keeping kangaroo populations low. Without predators, kangaroo numbers are booming in areas south of the Dog Fence, leading to widespread vegetation damage and habitat destruction. This negatively impacts both wildlife and livestock.
In these ecosystems without dingoes, small, vulnerable species are suffering from two fronts; higher predation from feral cat and foxes, and higher kangaroo numbers destroying the vegetation which native wildlife need to hide from feral predators.
At what point is the risk of dingo predation to wildlife and livestock outweighed by the benefits of cat and fox exclusion and overabundant kangaroo population reduction? Arid Recovery seeks to understand the balancing act of when and where dingoes are ultimately beneficial.
The Dingo Paddock continues to be used for landscape-scale experiments, including recently on the interactions of rabbits and cats. More dingo experiments are planned at Arid Recovery in the future.
Elsewhere around the country dingo research continues, as scientists unravel many questions about their lives, including what they eat, how they interact and how people perceive them.
All this is building a better understanding of the dingo’s place in Australia, and providing evidence for improving dingo management across the continent, to benefit both wildlife and farmers.
Arid Recovery’s dingo research papers can be accessed here:
Moseby et al. 2011: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320711003119
Moseby et al. 2012: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijecol/2012/250352/
Schroeder et al. 2015: https://bioone.org/journals/wildlife-research/volume-42/issue-6/WR15104/Dingo-interactions-with-exotic-mesopredators–spatiotemporal-dynamics-in-an/10.1071/WR15104.short
Bannister et al. 2016: https://www.publish.csiro.au/AM/AM15020
Moseby et al. 2018: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325412226_Ecological_Role_of_an_Apex_Predator_Revealed_by_a_Reintroduction_Experiment_and_Bayesian_Statistics