Molecular ecology of wild canids in Australia

Project Leader: Dr Oliver Berry, University of Western Australia

Aim: To provide more effective and efficient control of wild canids in Australia (foxes and wild dogs) by delivering key management-relevant ecological information on those pests

Projects: 10.u.21 and IA CRC PhD Student Danielle Stephens (current)

Project summary

Canids (foxes and wild dogs) represent one of the most significant threats to agricultural profitability and biodiversity conservation in Australia. Many key management-relevant aspects of the ecology of these animals, such as their abundance and dispersal behaviours have historically been difficult to measure, meaning that:

  • management decisions may be made without reference to pest biology (potentially limiting their effectiveness), and
  • the effectiveness of management actions (including deployment of new products) may be difficult to accurately assess.

Advances in molecular biology and bioinformatics permit a range of management-relevant ecological questions to now be addressed, and there has been a major growth in this area of research.

This project will take these tools and apply them to a variety of high profile and significant invasive animal issues involving wild canids in Australia.

The project is divided into four key project-elements:

  • non-invasive monitoring of abundance and survivorship in fox populations subject to lethal control (Western Australia and Victoria)
  • landscape genetics as a tool to define management units and estimate dispersal distances in foxes and wild dogs – co-funded by external partners
  • determining the relatedness and mainland origins of foxes introduced to Tasmania
  • estimating the number of breeding foxes and immigration rate onto Phillip Island, Victoria.

The project incorporates the training of postgraduate students and involves significant collaboration and financial partnership with IA CRC and non-CRC pest-management agencies, industry, and individuals Australia-wide.

Key achievements

  • Microsatellite DNA genotyping has successfully identified 10 individual foxes (5 male: 3 female: 2 unknown) in Tasmania, none of which were recaptures or are genetically related (related project 10.U.3)
  • Over 3500 samples have been collected for the fox DNA project. Analysis has already demonstrated that foxes from WA are genetically distinct from those in the eastern states, with movements virtually non-existent across the deserts of central Australia.
  • The Phillip Island fox genetic analysis component of the project was completed and provided the first quantitative estimates of fox recruitment onto Phillip Island. The results of this project were presented at the Australasian Wildlife Management Society conference in December 2008 and a manuscript has been submitted to the Journal of Wildlife Management.
  • Complete genotyping of Karara (WA) trace DNA samples was achieved. A total of 313 hair samples were collected during four trapping sessions, each session lasting for five days (three sessions prior to 1080 baiting). 196 samples produced microsatellite genotypes of sufficient information content to identify individuals. These samples identified 58 unique individuals and demonstrate a 100 per cent knockdown of the fox population by aerial baiting. The reduction in fox density was evident for at least 12 months post-baiting.
  • Residency of foxes in baited wheatbelt reserves (WA) is significantly shorter than in unbaited sites and rarely spanned baiting episodes. This indicates that 1080 baits effectively remove individual foxes.
  • Currently at least 15 individual foxes have been genetically identified from scats found in Tasmania, none of which have been related.

Key deliverables

  • Preparation and submission of manuscript on the provenance of foxes in Tasmania.
  • Preparation and submission of additional manuscripts.

Project team

Dr Oliver Berry (UWA), Danielle Stephens (PhD Candidate).

Project partners

IA CRC, University of Western Australia, WA Department of Environment and Conservation, Department of Agriculture and Food (WA), Bureau of Rural Sciences, Phillip Island Nature Park (Vic), Rangelands NRM Coordinating Group (WA), Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.

Further information

Berry, O. and Kirkwood, R. (2010). Measuring recruitment in an invasive species to determine eradication potential. Journal of Wildlife Management, 74(8): 1661-1670.

Berry O and Sarre S (2007) Gel-free species identification using melt-curve analysis. Molecular Ecology Notes 7(1): 1-4.

Berry O, Sarre SD, Farrington L, and Aitken N (2007) Faecal DNA detection of invasive species: the case of feral foxes in Tasmania. Wildlife Research 34(1): 1–7.

Fleming P.J.S., Ballard G., Brown A., Jenkins D.J., King J., and Stephens D (2008) Remotely capturing DNA samples from wild dogs: pilot pen and paddock studies. Proceedings of NSW Pest Animal Control Conference: The Challenges of Change, 30 September-2 October 2008, Wagga Wagga.
Fox DNA project
Wild dog DNA project

IA CRC’s National Genotyping Facility

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