A reintroduced ecosystem engineer provides a germination niche for native plant species

  • Catherine E. RossEmail author
  • Sue McIntyre
  • Philip S. Barton
  • Maldwyn J. Evans
  • Saul A. Cunningham
  • Adrian D. Manning
Original Paper


Grasslands and grassy woodlands worldwide have experienced declines in extent and condition, with substantial changes to their ground-layer biodiversity. In Australia, this decline has coincided with the extinction of many digging mammals that may have once created regeneration niches for native ground layer plants. These digging mammals are widely recognised as ‘ecosystem engineers’, due to their influence on biopedturbation and resultant soil functions. Yet there is uncertainty as to the benefits of digging in restoring grassland diversity with current levels of modification and the presence of exotic plants. We investigated the effect of digging by the reintroduced eastern bettong (Bettongia gaimardi) on seedling germination in a temperate grassy woodland in south-eastern Australia. We marked fresh bettong foraging pits and undisturbed control plots in dense and open grassland. We added seeds of seven native forb species and monitored germination and establishment over 2 years. We found significantly more seedlings in bettong pits than controls, particularly in dense grassland. This effect persisted beyond 1 year, suggesting that pits may have increased seedling survival in dry conditions. Surprisingly, native species displayed a stronger positive response to pits than exotic species, particularly in a wet year. There was an initial reduction in exotic species, but this was followed by their increase in 1-year-old pits, suggesting that the disturbance created by digging could eventually lead to an increase in weed abundance. Our results demonstrate that while bettong pits provide a germination niche for native forbs, reintroducing digging animals will not necessarily result in the desired restoration outcomes. Ongoing persistence of exotic species is to be expected, and seed addition may be required for species that are seed-limited.


Bettongia gaimardi Eastern bettong Digging Disturbance Grassland Grassy woodland Restoration 



This research forms part of the Mulligans Flat-Goorooyarroo Woodland Experiment (Australian Research Council Linkage LP0561817, LP110100126, LP140100209), a partnership between The Australian National University, the Australian Capital Territory Government and James Cook University. Catherine Ross was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship, and an additional scholarship top-up from the ARC (LP140100209). The authors would like to acknowledge the support provided by ACT Parks and Conservation Service and Conservation Research staff, and the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust. Thanks to Jenny Newport for advice and assistance, to David Johnson, Rachael Robb, and Katherina Ng for support in the field, and to Professor Iain Gordon for guidance. The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest. This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.

Author contributions

AM, SC and SM conceived the overall conceptual framework for the project. CR and SM conceived the ideas and designed methodology. CR and SM collected the data. CR, SM, PB and ME analysed the data. CR led the writing of the manuscript. SM, PB, ME, SC and AM provided advice and edited the manuscript. All authors contributed critically to the drafts and gave final approval for publication.

Supplementary material

10531_2019_1911_MOESM1_ESM.xlsx (670 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (XLSX 669 kb)
10531_2019_1911_MOESM2_ESM.docx (5.5 mb)
Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 5655 kb)


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Fenner School of Society and EnvironmentAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  2. 2.CSIRO Land and WaterBlack MountainAustralia

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