Can the invasive European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) assume the soil engineering role of locally-extinct natives?
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Habitat modifying species can play crucial roles in ecosystem function. Invasive engineers may assume these roles where native engineers have been lost from the system. We compared the dynamics of the foraging pits of an invasive engineer, the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) with two native mammals, the greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis) and the burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur). Foraging pits are small surface depressions created by animals when they forage for seeds, bulbs, roots, invertebrates and fungi. We measured foraging pit density and turnover, and density and richness of plant seedlings in pits and adjacent surfaces across three landforms representing a gradient in resource availability inside (bilbies and bettongs), and outside (rabbits only) a reserve in an arid Australian shrubland over 2 years. Pits of the native engineers contained 80% more seedlings (11.2 plants m−2) than rabbit pits (6.22 plants m−2). Further, rabbit pits supported 3.6-times fewer seedlings than equivalent non-pit surfaces outside the exclosure. Only one plant species was restricted entirely to pits. The reserve had more foraging pits and greater turnover than outside, but contrary to prediction, pit effects on seedling density were no greater in the more resource-limited dunes. There were some strong temporal and landscape effects on pit density and species composition, but generally trends were similar inside and outside the reserve. Overall, despite their functional similarities, invasive rabbits created fewer pits that were less favourable patches for seedlings than those of native engineers. Our work suggests that a suite of ecosystem processes associated with fertile patch creation has potentially been lost with the extirpation of bilbies and bettongs.
KeywordsInvasive engineers Soil disturbance Ecosystem engineering Seedling survival Biopedturbation Oryctolagus cuniculus
We thank Adam Bester and staff and volunteers of Arid Recovery for support in the field, Steve Shoobert for calculations of pit turnover, and Frank Hemmings for assistance with plant identification. This study was supported by Arid Recovery, a joint conservation initiative between BHP Billiton, University of Adelaide, S.A. Department for Environment and Heritage and the Friends of Arid Recovery. The research was carried out under appropriate University of NSW ethics guidelines.
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