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Distribution and habitat use of the feral black rat (Rattus rattus) on subantarctic Macquarie Island

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Abstract

Macquarie Island is the southernmost limit to the distribution of the black rat Rattus rattus. The species was introduced to this subantarctic island by sealers during the 19th century. The rats are now widespread and abundant in coastal areas all around the island. The distribution of rat populations is divided into discrete units by the availability of suitable habitat which, in turn, is a consequence of the rugged topography, particularly on the west coast. Rats are found from almost sea level to 200–250 m a.s.l. and up to 1 km inland. They have adapted successfully to the rigorous climate and firmly occupy a habitat niche in an environment where food is plentiful, predators are few and interspecific competition minimal. The principal habitat, tall Poa foliosa tussock grassland, provides year-round shelter and food. Rats dig burrows in the peaty stools of the tussock plants and construct nesting chambers at the base of the dense leaf canopy. Predictably, this provides a warmer and more stable thermal environment than that experienced outside under the tussock canopy where the runs are located. Tussock grasslands are spreading under the influence of management control measures directed at the introduced European rabbit and possibly global warming. Management programmes are also directed towards the eradication of feral cats. In response, rat populations may be expected to expand in numbers and to occupy new territories. Without control this may, in the long term, have serious consequences for the island's avifauna, particularly the smaller, burrow-nesting species.

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