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The role of small ground-foraging mammals in topsoil health and biodiversity: Implications to management and restoration


  • By Greg Martin

  • This article arose from observations made of the habits of bilbies, bettongs and bandicoots while Greg Martin was project manager of Scotia Sanctuary in far western NSW where the animals were free to roam in a large, feral-free environment. His current address is PO Box 28, Kingswood, SA. 5062 Australia. Tel. (+61-8) 8379 9672, Email:


Summary Many early Australian records indicate that at the time of European settlement there were extensive tracts of highly productive, and species-rich, grassy communities and chenopod shrublands. Topsoils in many areas were soft and friable. The rapid development of livestock industries led to most changes to the environment being simplistically ascribed to domestic stock grazing, land clearance, introduced pests (such as rabbits) or changed burning practices. It has also commonly been assumed that the hoof action of domestic stock was the principal cause of the compaction and surface sealing of soils in many areas. However, the rapid soil deterioration also coincided with the dramatic decline or complete extinction of many small native ground-foraging mammals and the consequent cessation of the soil disturbances and interactions that they created. This paper reviews the role of small mammals in disturbing soils, and implications for incorporation of organic matter, aeration, improvement in infiltration and the provision of suitable sites for seed germination and seedling establishment. This can aid topsoil formation and health by providing substrate for microorganisms, improved water balance and mineral cycles and enhanced soil structure. Seeds and mycorrhizal fungi, that are integral to the establishment and growth of many plants, are spread. Such intermittent disturbance may be an important driving force in determining the pathway of succession and lead to greater biodiversity. Further ongoing research on Australia's small mammals is needed, especially in areas where they are able to move freely in a natural environment and are protected from introduced predators.