Does digging by marsupials reduce fire risk and promote recovery from fire in Australia's temperate woodlands

A project undertaken at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Tasmania, and supervised by Chris Johnson

Many medium-sized Australian marsupials dig for their food. In the process they turn over huge volumes of soil, create vast numbers of foraging pits, and disrupt the litter layer in woodland ecosystems. This activity has many impacts on soil condition, plant regeneration, and the communities of invertebrates that live at the soil surface or in leaf litter.

This project will investigate the interactions of digging by marsupials and fire. We will test the hypotheses that diggings increase the patchiness of fire at fine spatial scales, protect some organic matter and seeds that would otherwise be consumed by fire, and promote rapid regeneration of diverse plant species following fire.

The marsupials involved in this interaction are now rare or extinct in the woodlands of mainland Australia, and consequently the ecological benefits they provided have been lost from those ecosystems. However they remain abundant in Tasmania, where we will work. Our project will show the extent to which reintroduction of Tasmanian animals to mainland Australia could be used as a tool to restore the health of woodlands on the mainland. We plan to use the results of this preliminary project as the basis for further study of the ecological controls on fire dynamics and the role of digging marsupials in ecolgical restoration.

Figure 1. A hole dug by a Tasmanian bettong

Figure 2. John Gould print image of the Tasmanian bettong Bettongia gaimardi (formerly known as Bettongia cuniculus)