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18 September 2023 Water scarcity exacerbates feral ungulate use of ephemeral savanna waterholes in northern Australia
Helenna Mihailou, Dale G. Nimmo, Melanie Massaro
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Context. Australian savannas evolved in the absence of hooved mammals and are therefore prone to disturbance from exotic ungulates. Several ungulate species have established feral populations in Australia’s northern savannas. Because most ungulate species have high water requirements, seasonal and interannual changes in water availability are likely to affect their behaviour and the extent of their impacts on native ecosystems. However, few studies have investigated how water scarcity affects feral ungulate use of waterpoints in Australia.

Aims. The aim of this study was to determine whether seasonal and interannual water scarcity affected the visitation behaviours of feral pigs, cattle and water buffalo at ephemeral savanna waterholes within Limmen National Park, Northern Territory, Australia.

Methods. We used motion-triggered wildlife cameras to study feral ungulate visitation and behaviour at 20 waterholes. Generalised linear mixed-effects models were used to investigate whether the number of visits, duration of visits and number of individuals visiting waterholes varied with year and dry season progression. We also investigated whether these factors affected the amount of time ungulates spent foraging, drinking and wallowing at waterholes.

Key results. All three species visited waterholes more often, for longer periods and in larger numbers during a drought year compared with an average rainfall year. Cattle and buffalo spent more time drinking from waterholes during the drought, and pigs and cattle spent longer periods foraging. Buffalo also wallowed more during the drought. Responses to dry season progression varied among species. Cattle visited waterholes more frequently, for longer durations and in larger herd sizes as the dry season progressed, whereas buffalo use did not change. Pigs only increased their visitation to waterholes when water scarcity was most extreme, at the end of the dry season during the drought.

Conclusions. Our results demonstrate that water scarcity exacerbates feral ungulate use of savanna waterholes. Management and control programs for feral ungulates in Australian savannas may benefit from targeting different species under specific water scarcity conditions.

Implications. Because climate change is predicted to reduce surface water availability in northern Australia, feral ungulate use of savanna waterholes may intensify, risking further biodiversity losses and irreversible ecosystem damage.

Helenna Mihailou, Dale G. Nimmo, and Melanie Massaro "Water scarcity exacerbates feral ungulate use of ephemeral savanna waterholes in northern Australia," Wildlife Research 51(1), (18 September 2023).
Received: 4 December 2022; Accepted: 1 September 2023; Published: 18 September 2023
feral ungulates
invasive species
Tropical savanna
water buffalo
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