Predators, fire or resources: What drives the distribution of herbivores in fragmented mesic forests?

Date: 03, Mar, 2020
Author(s):   Geary, W.L., Hradsky, B.A., Robley, A., Wintle, B.A.
Publisher: Austral Ecology

Trophic interactions and disturbance events can shape the structure and function of ecosystems. However, the effects of drivers such as predation, fire and climatic variables on species distributions are rarely considered concurrently. We used a replicated landscape‐scale predator management experiment to compare the effects of red fox Vulpes vulpes control, time‐since‐fire, vegetation type and other environmental variables on native herbivore distributions. Occurrence data for four native herbivores and an invasive predator – the red fox – were collected from 240 sites across three baited (for lethal fox control) and three unbaited forest blocks (4659–9750 ha) in south‐western Victoria, Australia, and used to build species distribution models. The herbivore taxa were as follows: red‐necked wallaby Macropus rufogriseus, black wallaby Wallabia bicolour, grey kangaroo Macropus fuligenosus and Macropus giganteus and common brushtail possum Trichosurus vulpecula. Fox control and fire had little effect on herbivore occurrence, despite the literature suggesting it can influence abundance, while climate, proximity to farmland and topography were more influential. This may be because the region’s high productivity and agricultural pastures subsidise food resources for both predators and prey within the forest blocks and so dampen trophic interactions. Alternatively, these drivers may affect herbivore abundance, but not herbivore occurrence. Understanding the drivers of herbivore distributions is an important step in predicting the effects of herbivory on other species, particularly after management interventions such as predator control and prescribed burns.

Predators, fire or resources: What drives the distribution of herbivores in fragmented mesic forests?