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Impact of a prolonged decline in rainfall on eucalypt woodlands in southwestern Australia and its consequences for avifauna

Angel, A.S. and Bradley, J.S. (2021) Impact of a prolonged decline in rainfall on eucalypt woodlands in southwestern Australia and its consequences for avifauna. Pacific Conservation Biology . Online Early.

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Aims: Our objective was to establish a relationship between long-term variation in the climatic environment, tree canopy decline and observed effects on the population dynamics of avifauna in the Dryandra Woodlands in southwestern Australia. These geographically isolated remnant woodlands are rich in endemic species and sustain a diverse range of ecological communities, but are threatened by habitat degradation and a decline in rainfall.

Methods: We used annual rainfall data, averaged from a series of weather stations within 100 km of the Dryandra Woodlands and a time series analysis to investigate long-term changes in annual rainfall. Satellite spectral observations of eight study sites at Dryandra was used to measure changes in Projected Foliage Cover (PFC) of old growth Eucalyptus wandoo at all sites. Our mist-net trapping study across three years and all eight sites, targeted two focal species; the rufous treecreeper (Climacteris rufa) and yellow-plumed honeyeater (Ptilotula ornata). We investigated the relationship between the captures of each species and variation in PFC, between sites and across years. Also in a separate demographic study, capture-mark-recapture data was used to estimate the apparent survival rate of each species, following the robust design for open and closed populations.

Key results: We demonstrate a long-term and continuing decline in average annual rainfall that is accelerating. We found the rainfall trend is concomitant with a long-term decline in PFC of E. wandoo and that the previous year’s annual rainfall is a predictor of average PFC across all sites. Additionally, we discovered that the PFC at each site, in each year, is a predictor of the number of yellow-plumed honeyeaters which prefer feeding on canopy insects and not a predictor of the predominantly ground-foraging rufous treecreeper. We also found a substantial difference in the apparent survival rates between the two species, with the apparent survival of yellow-plumed honeyeaters being approximately half that of rufous treecreepers. This difference was partially attributed to the likely movement outside of the study area due to decreasing habitat quality.

Conclusions and implications: Overall, our results do suggest that some impacts of long-term rainfall trends can be traced to particular species through PFC variation, but the response between species to habitat change will differ and depend on species-specific habitat requirements. As increasing greenhouse emissions are associated with declining rainfall in southwestern Australia, this study shows if rainfall decline and habitat degradation continue, it will have catastrophic consequences for woodland ecosystems.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Veterinary and Life Sciences
Publisher: CSIRO Publishing
Copyright: © 2021 The Authors.
United Nations SDGs: Goal 15: Life on Land
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