Aaron Greenville awarded grant to investigate dingoes

27 February 2013

Faculty of Science graduate, Aaron Greenville, has been awarded the Paddy Pallin Science Grant from the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales to find out if Australia's iconic wild dog, the dingo, is protecting smaller native species from being overhunted by foxes and cats.

This annual grant offers funding of $7000 for postgraduate or early career researchers for projects that have significant outcomes for Australian conservation. Greenville, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 2001, is now carrying out his PhD study at the University's Desert Ecology Research Group.

"I was honoured to be awarded the terrestrial grant for threatened species, sponsored by Humane Society International," says Greenville. "My research will investigate whether the top-predator, the dingo, can limit smaller predators such as the introduced red fox and cat in central Australia, and how these species interact. It will also test if these interactions are influenced by changes in prey populations. In doing so, it will identify key times when introduced predators are active so that control programs can be targeted to have the best effect."

Greenville will be using new remote camera technology to photograph the dingoes during the day and night for several months. He hopes that by looking at how the dingo population interacts with its environment, he will gain insight into the larger ecological interactions that are in play in central Australia, and how they are affected by environmental factors such as climate and wildfire.

It's also important, he says, because the species is under enormous pressure to exist, and we need to understand the role it plays in the Australian ecosystem to know the full cost of losing it. In many parts of Australia the dingo is still classified as a pest, and there have been several Government-sponsored dingo culls carried out in the past. Late last year, researchers suggested that dingo culling could spell serious trouble for some of Australia's smaller native species, such as the bilby, because decreased dingo numbers will drive up the fox and feral cat populations.

"Dingoes represent one of our last large predators on mainland Australia, but are facing the same threats that caused the extinction of the Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) in Tasmania in the 1930s. Understanding if the dingo can suppress populations of introduced predators across different areas of Australia may be helpful for land managers responsible for red fox and cat control. They may have an ally in the dingo!" says Greenville. "There are a few cases in central Australia where threatened [native] rodents are still persisting only because of the presence of dingos suppressing the red fox and feral cat."

Greenville says his "addiction to Australia's deserts" struck him almost 10 years ago when he was completing his Honours under the guidance of Professor Chris Dickman. Since then, he has been working in the Simpson Desert, which runs through the Northern Territory, South Australia, Queensland and central Australia. At 176,500 square kilometres, it is the largest sand dune desert in the world.

"It can be a challenging place to work: no power or any infrastructure at all. Everything we have, including food and water, is bought with us in 4WD vehicles," says Greenville. "Our vehicles are mobile labs, moving across our 8000 square kilometre study region for two to three weeks at a time. The weather is amazing and we have experienced flooding rains, dust storms, wildfires and extremes in temperatures, but that's all part of the adventure and also important in driving the ecology of central Australia."