Ecosystem engineering by digging mammals: effects on soil fertility and condition in Tasmanian temperate woodland
Davies, GTO and Kirkpatrick, JB and Cameron, EZ and Carver, S and Johnson, CN, Ecosystem engineering by digging mammals: effects on soil fertility and condition in Tasmanian temperate woodland, Royal Society Open Science, 6 Article 180621. ISSN 2054-5703 (2019) [Refereed Article]
Many small- and medium-sized mammals dig for their food. This activity potentially affects soil condition and fertility. Digging is well developed especially in Australian mammals, many of which have recently become rare or extinct. We measured the effects of digging by mammals on soil in a Tasmanian temperate dry sclerophyll forest with an intact mammal community. The density of diggings was 5812 ha−1, affecting 11% of the forest floor. Diggings were created at a rate of around 3113 diggings ha−1 yr−1, disturbing 6.5% of the forest floor and displacing 7.1 m3 ha−1 of soil annually. Most diggings were made by eastern bettongs (Bettongia gaimardi) and short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus). Many (approx. 30%) fresh diggings consisted of re-excavations of old diggings. Novel diggings displaced 5 m3 ha yr−1 of soil. Diggings acted as traps for organic matter and sites for the formation of new soil, which had higher fertility and moisture content and lower hardness than undisturbed topsoil. These effects on soil fertility and structure were strongest in habitats with dry and poor soil. Creation of fine-scaled heterogeneity by mammals, and amelioration of dry and infertile soil, is a valuable ecosystem service that could be restored by reintroduction of digging mammals to habitats from which they have declined or gone extinct.