The Rangeland Journal The Rangeland Journal Society
Rangeland ecology and management

Two ecological universes separated by the Dingo Barrier Fence in semi-arid Australia: interactions between landscapes, herbivory and carnivory, with and without dingoes

A. E. Newsome, P. C. Catling, B. D. Cooke and R. Smyth

The Rangeland Journal 23(1) 71 - 98
Published: 15 June 2001


This paper challenges conclusions of Caughley et al. (1980) that the abundance of red kangaroos (Macropus rufus) in western New South Wales is solely due to lack of dingoes (Canis lupus dingo), and vice versa for neighbouring South Australia. A Dingo Barrier Fence divides the two different ecological systems, which have sheep in New South Wales and cattle in South Australia. This paper re-examines in particular whether there is an environmental gradient across the Fence that was dismissed by Caughley et al. This paper concludes to the contrary, that there is a strong environmental gradient. Our aerial surveys demonstrate significantly that habitats favouring red kangaroos are prevalent in New South Wales today, but are very scarce or absent in South Australian landscapes.

Aerial surveys were used in both studies, but designs differed. Caughley et al. flew at right angles across the Fence on paths 28 km apart. Flights would have crossed the south-westerly streamlines rarely. Our flight lanes followed streamlines looking for floodouts, the favourite habitat of red kangaroos. Return lanes went between streamlines sampling other habitats. Counts of red kangaroos seen were made every 1.75 km, with the specific habitat also identified. Three extra factors are invoked in our study. One is that the low annual rainfalls translate into intrinsically low survival rates of pouch-young of red kangaroos, contrary to their abundance in New South Wales today. The other two are related to that current abundance also. There is now evidence for greatly increased run-off of rainfall from catchments onto the open plains in New South Wales. Also present is a very large shallow basin lying between catchments and the Dingo Barrier Fence. Streamlines enter it but none flow past its western rim.

The above conclusions were confirmed during subsequent ground surveys over three years. Of eleven species of medium and large vertebrates seen in New South Wales, five were absent in South Australia. Three were kangaroos, and the others were feral pigs and goats. Emus are more abundant in New South Wales also. All of those species would be targets for dingoes, especially as alternate prey to rabbits that generate huge eruptions every decade or so. Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) were in lower abundance in South Australia with dingoes present, as expected with meso-predator interactions. Feral cats (Felis catus) were in similar numbers on both sides of the Fence for unknown reasons. Competition between rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and sheep for food in New South Wales was shown to significantly reduce rabbit numbers in drought. That rabbits are perennially in lower densities there than in South Australia may be due to the higher densities of foxes than in South Australia. Historically, red kangaroos were rare in the region in the mid-1800s. Their abundance has arisen since European occupation. Thc species was rare on those open plains, and permanent water was scarce.

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease reached the study-area in 1995. Its impact reduced rabbit populations to a rarity that prevails today on both sides of the Dingo Fence. Predation from dingoes, foxes and feral cats may assist continuance of low numbers of rabbits. Pastures, seedling trees and livestock will benefit, as will the kangaroos.

Keywords: Dingo Barrier Fence, differential habitats, kangaroo abundances, other fauna, geomorphic ponding, predator/prey interactions.

© ARS 2001

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