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The impact of perturbations on patterns of movement and parasitism in a critically endangered marsupial, the woylie

Jones, Krista L. (2018) The impact of perturbations on patterns of movement and parasitism in a critically endangered marsupial, the woylie. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Wildlife populations are increasingly subjected to perturbations that can impact their behaviour and pathogen transmission. Yet, there is limited understanding of how such perturbations affect the behaviour and health of endangered species, particularly with respect to underlying mechanisms. In this thesis, I examine how perturbations alter the behaviour of individuals and parasitism in the population, with an emphasis on the potential for network models to serve as a powerful tool to connect the two.

This thesis investigates the impact of reserve expansion and wildfire on behavioural ecology, parasitism, and body condition of a critically endangered marsupial, the woylie (Bettongia peniciallata). Over two years, 999 captures were made of 136 adult and subadult woylies in Whiteman Park, a fenced reserve in Western Australia. A subset of animals was assessed for body condition and a variety of parasites (ecto-, haemo-, and endo-parasites). Ninety-three individuals were fitted with GPS tracking collars to assess movement patterns and interactions over the full duration of the study.

Woylies responded quickly to the reserve expansion, incorporating the newly accessible addition into expanded home ranges, with increased range overlap and connectivity. The fire also significantly impacted woylie behavioural ecology, with increased selection of unburnt areas and shifts in range areas and social networks. Despite these significant behavioural changes, and associated shifts in social network metrics, there were relatively minor impacts on woylie parasitism in response to these perturbations.

This thesis provides a rare insight into the response of wildlife to two perturbations, reserve expansion and bushfire. Indeed, to our knowledge, this is only the second study investigating the impact of reserve expansion on a wildlife population. As both fire and reserve expansion are highly relevant perturbations for woylie populations, it is encouraging that the animals responded quickly to the expansion and that neither disturbance appeared to have significant negative impacts on woylie health. This thesis also demonstrates how tools such as social network analysis and null models can enhance our understanding of how perturbation-induced changes in individual behaviour can result in population-level effects. Yet, it simultaneously highlights the methodological challenges often present in working with critically endangered populations, particularly with respect to social network analysis techniques, and the need for further development in this area.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Veterinary and Life Sciences
United Nations SDGs: Goal 15: Life on Land
Supervisor(s): Godfrey, Stephanie and Thompson, Andrew
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