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Article << Previous     |     Next >>   Contents Vol 40(7)

Dietary changes in response to population reduction in the possum Trichosurus vulpecula in New Zealand

Peter J. Sweetapple A C, Wendy A. Ruscoe A B and Graham Nugent A

A Landcare Research, PO Box 69040, Lincoln 7640, New Zealand.
B Present address: Institute of Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Bruce, ACT 2617, Australia.
C Corresponding author. Email: sweetapplep@landcareresearch.co.nz

Wildlife Research 40(7) 561-569 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WR13118
Submitted: 27 June 2013  Accepted: 20 November 2013   Published: 28 January 2014

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Context: Efforts to protect or restore degraded plant communities by population control of invasive herbivores frequently fail to achieve their goals.

Aims: We seek to quantify changes in diet of an introduced herbivore, the brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), following population control, and determine how these may contribute to variable responses in plant condition.

Methods: Stomach contents of possums from five areas of indigenous forest in northern New Zealand were analysed to measure diet before and after the application of possum control.

Key results: The contribution of fruit, and foliage of some early successional forest species, to total possum diet increased up to 27-fold following possum population control. This was accompanied by declines in consumption of the main pre-control possum foods (foliage from common canopy trees). Dietary changes were a combination of an immediate response to control (1 year) and a strengthening of these initial changes with increasing time since control.

Conclusions: Possums in the study areas changed diet following population control, from a diet dominated by foliage of common canopy tree species to one dominated by fruits, and foliage of uncommon early successional plants. Pest control instantaneously increased the per capita availability of all foods, and probably permitted absolute increases in some foods through plant recovery, enabling possums to substitute scarce, high-preference foods for abundant but less preferred canopy foliage.

Implications: Following control of a pest herbivore, dietary changes reduce benefits for the most vulnerable preferred plant foods, but enhance benefits for less favoured plants. Intense pest control can permit some recovery of highly preferred foods, despite increased per capita consumption of these foods by survivors of control.

Additional keywords: diet, impact mitigation, invasive herbivore, population control.


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