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A rocky heart in a spinifex sea: occurrence of an endangered marsupial predator is multiscale dependent in naturally fragmented landscapes

Abstract

Context

Research on the impacts of anthropogenic habitat fragmentation has dominated landscape ecology for decades, yet our understanding of what drives species’ distributions in naturally fragmented landscapes remains limited.

Objectives

We aimed to (i) determine whether rocky patches embedded within a ‘matrix’ of fire prone grasslands act as naturally fragmented landscapes for an endangered marsupial predator, the northern quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus), and (ii) reveal the extent to which within-patch, patch, landscape variables, and matrix condition drive the occurrence of northern quolls.

Methods

We deployed remote sensing cameras for a total of 200 nights, at 230 sites spanning rocky and grassland habitats across 6000 km2 of the Pilbara bioregion of Western Australia. We examined the influence of within-patch, patch, landscape variables, and matrix condition on northern quolls using Generalised Linear Mixed Models.

Results

We found strong evidence that northern quoll habitat is naturally fragmented, observing higher occurrence and abundance of quolls in rocky patches than the surrounding grassland matrix. Within rocky patches, quolls were more likely to use patches with higher vegetation cover and den availability (within-patch), lower amounts of edge habitat relative to patch area (patch), and larger amounts of surrounding rocky habitat (landscape). When quolls entered the matrix, they tended to remain in areas with high vegetation cover, close to rocky patches.

Conclusions

Species occurrence in naturally fragmented landscapes is influenced by factors operating at multiple scales. Rocky habitats are naturally fragmented and vital to the conservation of a range of taxa around the world, including the northern quoll.

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Acknowledgements

Data collection was assisted by Sian Thorn, Darcy Watchorn, Rainer Chan, Daniel Bohorquez Fandino, Jacob Champney, Hannah Kilian, Mitch Cowan. Camera trap deployment was also completed with the assistance of the Yandeyarra Indigenous ranger program facilitated by Pip Short and Greening Australia. Technical support was provided by Neal Birch, Brent Johnson, Hannah Anderson, Russell Palmer, Alicia Whittington and Jo Williams from the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), as well as Deb Noy from Charles Sturt University. Stephen Van Leeuwen from DBCA provided assistance with the project conception and also provided support throughout. Equipment and operational costs were provided by DBCA, Roy Hill and Charles Sturt University. Roy Hill also covered the costs of flights, fuel and freight. Harriet Davie from Roy Hill provided technical support throughout along with the Roy Hill rail team in Port Hedland. We thank Colin Brierly, Betty Brierly and Graham for providing access to Indee station, Ben and Lindsey for access to Mallina and Troy Eaton for access to Pippingarra. Belinda Barnett from BHP assisted with site access. H.A.M is supported by a scholarship from the Institute of Land, Water and Society and Charles Sturt University. L.E.V. was funded by the Australian Government's National Environmental Science Program through the Threatened Species Recovery Hub. D.G.N. was supported by an Australian Research Council Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA). This project was supported by the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment—Equity Trustees Charitable Foundation & the Ecological Society of Australia, as well as the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions as well as environmental offsets and public good funding provided by BHP, Rio Tinto, Atlas Iron, Fortescue Metals Group, Roy Hill, Process Minerals International, Metals X and Main Roads Western Australia. Research ethics was granted though the Charles Sturt University animal ethics committee (permit number A17031), and the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (permit number 08-002376-1).

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Moore, H.A., Michael, D.R., Ritchie, E.G. et al. A rocky heart in a spinifex sea: occurrence of an endangered marsupial predator is multiscale dependent in naturally fragmented landscapes. Landscape Ecol 36, 1359–1376 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-021-01207-9

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