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Landscape ecology of the burrowing bettong: Warren distribution and patch dynamics in semiarid eastern Australia



Abstract  In arid and semiarid Australia fossorial vertebrates have been a major component of the soil biota mediating many fundamental landscape processes. However, many species such as the burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur) have become seriously depleted following European pastoral settlement. As ‘landscape engineers’, they were responsible for creating and maintaining a high degree of surface heterogeneity that promoted a diverse and productive herbaceous understorey, particularly in ‘hard-red’ communities dominated by mulga (Acacia aneura). While their regional extinction has had major impacts by contributing to desertification and loss of biodiversity, relict warrens ‘engineered’ by B. lesueur still remain in certain ecosystems and despite continual weathering, contribute significantly to herbage productivity and species diversity. This paper details the results obtained from a number of field studies aimed at determining the distribution of relict warrens at contrasting scales and their influence on landscape patch dynamics resulting from their impacts on soil nutrients, herbage composition and herbivory. Finally, the conservation implications following the continental extinction of this species and the resulting loss of fundamental ecosystem services, as well as cultural values, are discussed in the context of future re-introduction efforts.