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Small digging mammals are much more important for their ecosystems than previously believed

Posted January 17, 2019

Many small mammals dig in order to find food. They feed on various beetles, worms, larvi and other creatures as well as roots. Scientists from the University of Tasmania conducted a study, which revealed that this digging is actually very important for the ecosystems, because it enhances soil fertility and condition, and helps to reduce bushfire risk.

The eastern bettong is completely extinct in mainland Australia and can only be found in Tasmania. Image credit: Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This time scientists focused on eastern bettongs, echidnas and other mammals on soil in temperate, dry forests in south-east Tasmania, but it is likely that other digging mammals in other parts of the world have a similar impact on their ecosystems. However, south-east Tasmania is unique in a way, because the eastern bettong is extinct on mainland Australia and populations of long-nosed potoroo are declining.

Scientists wanted to see how disappearance of these animals could affect ecosystems they are typically digging in. Researchers found that these animals create pits that act as traps for organic matter. These areas become fertilized, they collect water and, therefore, can grow more nutrients.

Medium-sized mammals that dig for their food once were very common in today’s Australia. However, their populations have declined dramatically once European people have arrived and settled in this continent.  Scientists are now thinking that this could have had a tremendous impact on Australia’s soil fertility and hardness.

Digging mammals reduce hardness, which helps plants to grow. This could’ve added to the fact that people generally compact soil by partaking in agriculture and construction. However, scientists are not saying that digging mammals should be reintroduced – any meddling with existing ecosystems should be well thought out before taking any action.

This is quite interesting, because when ecosystems are discussed, smaller mammals are usually seen only as prey of bigger carnivores. Now scientists are saying that their digging could actually be much more important than anyone could have predicted.

Professor Chris Johnson, leader of the research project, said: “The animals digging create higher moisture content in the soil, which not only helps to reduce the risk of bushfire but also enables the habitat to bounce back quickly if it is affected by fire. Digging mammals, such as the eastern bettong, provide a crucial element of ecological management and restoration of ecosystems”.

Hopefully, these results will encourage protection and conservation efforts for these small digging mammals. It is human activity, such as domesticated dogs, construction and agriculture driving them to extinction. But their role in improving soil cannot be overlooked.

Source: University of Tasmania


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