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Aussie digging mammals vital to iconic Tuarts

Monday, 09 July 2018

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Two of Western Australia’s iconic native species are aiding one another’s survival, new research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) and Murdoch University has found.

In recent years, environmental managers and conservationists have raised the alarm on the declining health of Tuart trees (Eucalyptus gomphocephala), most notably after the collapse of 500 hectares of Tuart woodland in the heat event of 2011.

While several factors have been identified for this decline, climate change and drying soils are at the top of the list – which, oddly enough, is where the tiny Quenda comes in with help.

One of the main foods for Quendas are fungi, including ectomycorrhizal fungi, whose spores are dispersed in their droppings.

Fungal spores infect Tuart roots and increase the trees’ ability to draw up moisture and nutrients from the soil.

In exchange, the fungi get food from the trees, creating a symbiotic relationship.

“We know there is a positive association between the presence of ectomycorrhizal fungi and healthy Tuarts, but up until now we haven’t known just how important the vector role played by digging mammals is,” said Dr Anna Hopkins, from ECU’s School of Science.

“Quendas turn over soil as they forage and this improves soil properties, increasing water infiltration and nutrient cycling, and now we have evidence that their consumption of fungi has an even greater impact on woodland health.”

To test their theory, Dr Hopkins and Murdoch PhD student Natasha Tay grew Tuart seedlings under glasshouse conditions; after ten weeks they found those treated with Quenda droppings developed diverse assemblages of mycorrhizal fungi on their roots.

“Quendas play a vital role as ecosystem engineers and could assist in the long-term with restoring Tuart tree populations,” Ms Tay said.

The study also points to the need to protect large tracts of woodland from development to protect habitat and foraging areas for Quenda to allow for the distribution of important fungal species across the landscape.

Quendas are currently ‘Priority Four’ on the WA Wildlife Conservation Act’s ‘Priority Fauna List’, meaning conservation is dependent on ongoing management intervention.

A 2012 WWF Quenda Survey found most sightings are in areas with large amounts of retained native vegetation, most notably Kalamunda, Gooseberry Hill and Mundaring.

‘The tripartite relationship between a bioturbator, mycorrhizal fungi, and a key Mediterranean forest tree’ is published in Austral Ecology.

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