Scratching beneath the surface: bandicoot bioturbation contributes to ecosystem processes

Leonie E. Valentine, M. Bretz, K. Ruthrof, Rebecca Fisher, G.E. E. St J. Hardy, P.A. A. Fleming

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Abstract

Animals that forage for food or dig burrows by biopedturbation can alter the biotic and abiotic characteristics of their habitat. The digging activities of such ecosystem engineers, although small at a local scale, may be important for broader scale landscape processes by influencing soil and litter properties, trapping organic matter and seeds, and subsequently altering seedling recruitment. We examined environmental characteristics (soil moisture content, hydrophobicity and litter composition) of foraging pits created by the southern brown bandicoot (Isoodon obesulus; Peramelidae), a digging Australian marsupial, over a 6-month period. Fresh diggings typically contained a higher moisture content and lower hydrophobicity than undisturbed soil. A month later, foraging pits contained greater amounts of fine litter and lower amounts of coarse litter than adjacent undug surfaces, indicating that foraging pits may provide a conducive microhabitat for litter decomposition, potentially reducing litter loads and enhancing nutrient decomposition. We tested whether diggings might affect seedling recruitment (seed removal by seed harvesters and seed germination rates) by artificially mimicking diggings. Although there were no differences in the removal of seeds, seedling recruitment for three native plant species (Acacia saligna, Kennedia prostrata and Eucalyptus gomphocephala) was higher in plots containing artificial diggings compared with undug sites. The digging actions of bandicoots influenced soil moisture and hydrophobicity, the size distribution of litter and seedling recruitment at a local scale. The majority of Australian digging mammals are threatened, with many suffering substantial population and range contraction. However, their persistence in landscapes plays an important role in maintaining the health and function of ecosystems. © 2016 Ecological Society of Australia
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)265-276
JournalAustral Ecology
Volume42
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 3 May 2017

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