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Article << Previous     |     Next >>   Contents Vol 39(5)

Population dynamics of Dasycercus blythi (Marsupialia: Dasyuridae) in central Australia: how does the mulgara persist?

Pip Masters A B C and Chris R. Dickman A

A Desert Ecology Research Group, School of Biological Sciences, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.
B Present address: Department of Environment and Natural Resources, 37 Dauncey Street, Kingscote, SA 5223, Australia.
C Corresponding author. Email: pip.masters@sa.gov.au

Wildlife Research 39(5) 419-428 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WR11156
Submitted: 30 August 2011  Accepted: 24 April 2012   Published: 5 June 2012

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Context: Central Australia has been a graveyard for native mammals, with many small and medium-sized species becoming extinct or persisting in reduced geographical ranges in this region since the advent of European settlement. Species in the critical weight range (35–5500 g) have been affected most dramatically.

Aims: We compared the dynamics of two geographically distant populations of a medium-sized surviving desert mammal, the brush-tailed mulgara (Dasycercus blythi, ~100 g), and tested the hypothesis that this species’ persistence can be explained by its demographic plasticity.

Methods: Paired sampling grids, each 31.5 ha, were set up in the Tanami Desert on the northern edge of the species’ geographical range and near Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park (UKTNP) on the southern boundary. Animals were live-trapped every 3 months between 1992 and 1995, and estimates made of population size, residency, reproduction, bodyweight and tail width; the latter was used as an index of condition.

Key results: The UKTNP site supported a larger population of D. blythi than did the Tanami Desert site. In both areas, the population fluctuated annually, declining during the breeding season (June to October) and increasing again following the influx of juveniles in spring. Females had one litter per year, with a median and maximum litter size of six; births in the Tanami occurred in July, at least a month earlier than they did at UKTNP. Bodyweights and tail widths peaked before breeding and then declined until spring, with animals retaining better body condition in the Tanami than at UKTNP. In both regions, individuals were resident for 1–2 years; daughters remained near their mother’s home range but males moved to other areas.

Conclusions: The results provided little support for our initial expectation that populations of D. blythi would behave differently in disparate parts of the species’ geographical range, and suggested instead that this mulgara exhibits a predictable life history, with limited demographic flexibility.

Implications: The persistence of D. blythi in central Australia is most likely a result of its striking flexibility in use of food resources, its ability to enter torpor and to tolerate large declines in bodyweight and condition, and its propensity to dig deep burrows. We suggest that these attributes buffer mulgaras from the impacts of introduced predators that have contributed to extinctions of other medium-sized marsupials, and from climatic and resource uncertainties that shape the dynamics of many smaller desert mammals.

Additional keywords: arid Australia, Dasycercus cristicauda, brush-tailed mulgara, demographics, dasyurid, reproduction, threatened species.


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