The ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of predation: the level of fox control needed to select predator resistance in a reintroduced mammal in Australia

Date: 20, Mar, 2021
Author(s):   Evans, M.J., Batson, W.G., Gordon, I.J., Belton, E., Chaseling, T., Fletcher, D., Harrison, M., McElroy, T., Mungoven, A., Newport, J., Pierson, J., Portas, T., Swain, S., Wimpenny, C., Manning, A.D.
Publisher: Biodiversity and Conservation

A large component of the anthropogenic biodiversity crisis is the loss of animal species. In response, there has been significant investment in reintroductions of species to their historical ranges. Predation by native and exotic predators, however, remains a barrier to success. Over the past 200 years, Australia has seen the highest rate of mammal extinction on earth, with mammals within a critical weight range (CWR: 35 g–5.5 kg) most affected due to predation by exotic predators. Populations of some threatened species now exist only in Tasmania, offshore islands, or predator-proof sanctuaries. The next critical step is to return native populations outside of predator-free areas, ‘beyond-the-fence’, on the continental mainland. Given our current inability to completely remove exotic predators from mainland ecosystems, how can we achieve successful mammal reintroductions? A potential solution is to drive adaptation of reintroduced animals towards predator-resistance by exposing them to low levels of predation. We propose the concept of a ‘Goldilocks Zone’—the ‘just right’ levels of predation needed to drive selection for predator-resistant native species, while ensuring population viability. We experimentally reintroduced a mammal, the eastern bettong (Bettongia gaimardi), to mainland Australia, 100 years after its local extinction. Using an intense baiting regime, we reduced the population density of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), the main factor behind the eastern bettong’s extirpation from the continent. Reducing bait take to 15% of previous levels allowed differential survival among bettongs; some surviving under 100 days and others over 450 (~ 4 times longer than some similar trials with related species). Surviving individuals were generally larger at release than those that died earlier, implying selection for larger bettongs. Our results suggest that reducing predation could establish a Goldilocks Zone that could drive selection for bettongs with predator-resistant traits. Our work contributes to a growing body of literature that explores a shift towards harnessing evolutionary principles to combat the challenges posed by animal management and conservation.