Book review: The Biology of Deserts

David Ward, 2nd edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016. xv + 370 pp.

First published in Austral Ecology.

Contrary to the popular perception that deserts are wastelands, they house some of the most diverse communities of flora and fauna of any environment on the planet. Thus, deserts provide biologists and ecologists an ideal setting to explore and test many ecological, behavioural, ecophysiological and evolutionary theories. Or as Professor
David Ward writes, we can view ‘deserts as laboratories of nature, where natural selection is exposed at its most extreme’. The Biology of Deserts provides a significant summary of the abiotic and biotic processes, which operate in arid environments, and represents one of the few general texts on desert biology (also see Whitford 2002).

Read the full review here.



Whitford W. (2002). Ecology of Desert Systems. Academic Press, San Diego.

Greenville A.C. (2017). The Biology of Deserts – David Ward , 2nd edition. Austral Ecology, DOI: 10.1111/aec.12523

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New book: Lake Eyre basin rivers: environmental, social and economic importance.

Lake Eyre Basin Rivers outlines the environmental, social and economic values of the rivers from a diverse range of perspectives, including science, tourism, economy, engineering, policy, Traditional Owners and pastoralists. It describes the current state of the environment and the past and ongoing threats to the river systems, drawing on stories from the Murray-Darling Basin. It also provides direction for ensuring that the rivers remain free-flowing to service the environment and future generations.

I had the opportunity to contribute to one of the chapters.

Chapter 6: Developing the desert: potential effects on wildlife.

In this chapter we discuss the potential consequences of irrigation and mining developments on wildlife in arid Australia.


Dickman C. R., Greenville A. C. & Wardle G. M. (2017) Developing the desert: potential effects on wildlife. In: Lake Eyre Basin rivers: environmental, social and economic importance. (ed R. T. Kingsford) pp. 63-74. CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.

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New paper: Desert mammal populations are limited by introduced predators rather than future climate change

Authors: Aaron C. Greenville, Glenda M. Wardle & Chris R. Dickman

Published in: Royal Society Open Science


Feral cat shows off the native mouse it caught to our remote camera trap in the Simpson Desert, Queensland.

Climate change is predicted to place up to one in six species at risk of extinction in coming decades, but extinction probability is likely to be influenced further by biotic interactions such as predation. We use structural equation modelling to integrate results from remote camera trapping and long-term (17–22 years) regional-scale (8000 km²) datasets on vegetation and small vertebrates (>38 880 captures) to explore how biotic processes and two key abiotic drivers influence the structure of a diverse assemblage of desert biota in central Australia. We use our models to predict how changes in rainfall and wildfire are likely to influence the cover and productivity of the dominant vegetation and the impacts of predators on their primary rodent prey over a 100-year timeframe. Our results show that, while vegetation cover may decline due to climate change, the strongest negative effect on prey populations in this desert system is top-down suppression from introduced predators.


Greenville A.C., Wardle G. M. & Dickman C. R. (2017). Desert mammal populations are limited by introduced predators rather than future climate change. Royal Society Open Science, 4: 170384.

Further reading:

My PhD journey comes to an end: the role of ecological interactions

Of mice and dogs

Greenville A. C., Wardle G. M., Dickman Christopher R. (2012). Extreme climatic events drive mammal irruptions: regression analysis of 100-year trends in desert rainfall and temperature. Ecology and Evolution, 2, 2645-2658.

Greenville A. C., Dickman C. R., Wardle G. M. & Letnic M. (2009). The fire history of an arid grassland: the influence of antecedent rainfall and ENSO. International Journal of Wildland Fire, 18, 631-639.

Top Dog: How Dingoes Save Native Animals. Australasian Science, November 2014.


Feral animals worse than climate change, Country Today, November 2017.

Feral foxes and felines more dangerous to our desert dwellers than climate change. Scimex, November, 2017.

Feral cats, foxes a greater threat in Outback than climate change. University of Sydney Media, November, 2017.

Feral foxes, desert cats pose more threat to Aussie animals than climate change: expert. Xinhua (China), November, 2017.

Feral animals pose major threat to Outback, climate change study finds. Jersey Tribune, November, 2017.

Feral animals pose major threat to Outback, climate change study finds., November, 2017.

Feral animals pose major threat to Outback, climate change study finds. EurekAlert!, November, 2017.

Cats, foxes pose bigger risk to native wildlife than climate change in the outback. ABC News, November, 2017.

702 ABC Radio Sydney, November 2017 (at 47 min).

Füchse und Katzen schlimmer als Klimawandel?  (Germany), November, 2017.

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New book: Monitoring threatened species and ecological communities

A new book is coming that aims to improve the standard of monitoring for Australia’s threatened biodiversity and I had the opportunity to contribute to one of the chapters:

Chapter 21: Determining trends in irruptive desert species


Populations of many desert-dwelling organisms show ‘boom and bust’ dynamics, irrupting briefly following rain-driven pulses of productivity before collapsing again to low numbers. Determining population trends for such organisms poses unique challenges. This chapter describes population booms and busts in two species of dasyurid marsupials monitored over 22–27 years at nine sites in arid central Australia and uses these species to gain insight into how population trends in irruptive species might be discerned. The brush-tailed mulgara Dasycercus blythi increased predictably after heavy rainfall at all sites before again becoming scarce, whereas the lesser hairy-footed dunnart Sminthopsis youngsoni fluctuated asynchronously at all sites, with no population drivers identified. These disparate patterns indicate that monitoring programs (survey timing, number and placement of monitoring sites) should be designed with respect to the natural history of the target species to reveal trends in their populations. Environmental factors and known or putative threats to the target species also should be monitored, and appropriate models to assess the robustness of population trends and key drivers should be constructed to assist in making decisions about management intervention. More resources and input from stakeholders are needed to lift monitoring of threatened, irruptive desert species above current levels.


Dickman C. R., Greenville A. C. & Wardle G. M. (2018). Determining trends in irruptive desert species. In: Monitoring threatened species and ecological communities (eds S. Legge, D. B. Lindenmayer, N. Robinson, B. Scheele, D. M. Southwell and B. Wintle) pp. 281-92. CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.

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New paper: Save Australia’s ecological research

Long-term research has revealed that ‘booms’ in productivity from extreme rainfall events also bring risks from introduced predators in Australian desert environments. Photo by Aaron Greenville

I was one of 69 authors on a letter published in Science calling for Australia to save its Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTERN). The network comprises more than 1100 long-term field plots within temperate forests, rainforests, alpine grasslands, heathlands, deserts, and savannas, with an unparalleled temporal depth in biodiversity data.  We are now experiencing some of the greatest ecological change that humans have ever experienced, and now, more than ever, Australia needs to expand its capacity in biodiversity monitoring, not end it. The decommissioning of LTERN will also end Australia’s ability to contribute to the International Long Term Ecological Research Network. On a personal level, LTERN was the only mechanism within Australia for early career researchers to develop their careers in long term research.

The letter has been featured in a news piece in Science titled: “Australia to ax support for long-term ecology sites” and Nature titled: “Ecologists protest Australia’s plans to cut funding for environment-monitoring network“.

Hopefully, the decision to decommission LTERN will be reversed, as ecological processes work on longer time scales than the traditional 3 to 5 year  funding cycles.


Lindenmayer D., Burns E. L., Dickman C. R., Green P. T., Hoffmann A. A., Keith D. A., Morgan J. W., Russell-Smith J., Wardle G. M., Gillespie G. R., Cunningham S., Krebs C., Likens G., Pauw J., Troxler T. G., McDowell W. H., Catford J. A., Hobbs R., Bennett A., Nicholson E., Ritchie E., Wilson B., Greenville A. C., Newsome T., Shine R., Kutt A. S., Tulloch A., Thurgate N., Fisher A., Auty K., Smith B., Williams R., Fox B., Metternicht G., Bai X., Banks S., Colvin R., Crane M., Dovey L., Fraser C., Foster C., Heinsohn R., Kay G., Ng K., MacGregor C., Michael D., O’Loughlin T., Portfirio L., Robin L., Salt D., Sato C., Scheele B., Stein J., Stein J., Walker B., Westgate M., Wilson G., Wood J., Venn S., Vardon M., Legge S., Costanza R., Kenny D., Burnett P., Welsh A., Moore J., Sgrò C. & Westoby M. (2017). Save Australia’s ecological research. Science 357, 557.

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New paper: Top predators constrain mesopredator distributions

Authors: Thomas M. Newsome, Aaron C. Greenville, Duško Ćirović, Chris R. Dickman, Chris N. Johnson, Miha Krofel, Mike Letnic, William J. Ripple, Euan G. Ritchie, Stoyan Stoyanov & Aaron J. Wirsing.

Published in: Nature Communications


The dingo is one of Australia’s top-predators. Photo by Bobby Tamayo.

Top predators can suppress mesopredators by killing them, competing for resources and instilling fear, but it is unclear how suppression of mesopredators varies with the distribution and abundance of top predators at large spatial scales and among different ecological contexts. We suggest that suppression of mesopredators will be strongest where top predators occur at high densities over large areas. These conditions are more likely to occur in the core than on the margins of top predator ranges. We propose the Enemy Constraint Hypothesis, which predicts weakened top-down effects on mesopredators towards the edge of top predators’ ranges. Using bounty data from North America, Europe and Australia we show that the effects of top predators on mesopredators increase from the margin towards the core of their ranges, as predicted. Continuing global contraction of top predator ranges could promote further release of mesopredator populations, altering ecosystem structure and contributing to biodiversity loss.


Newsome, T.M., Greenville, A.C., Ćirović, D., Dickman, C.R., Johnson, C.N., Krofel, M., Letnic, M., Ripple, W.J., Ritchie, E.G., Stoyanov, S. & Wirsing, A.J. (2017). Top predators constrain mesopredator distributions. Nature Communications, 8: 15469.


Newsome, T.M. Thinking big gives top predators the competitive edge. The Conversation, May 2017.

Strom M. Reintroducing dingoes can help manage feral foxes and cats, study suggests. Sydney Morning Herald, 23rd May 2017.

Schwing E. Study: To Mitigate Problem Predators, Give Wolves More Space, Tolerance. The Northwest News Network, 23rd May 2017.

Dingoes need more space to fight off pests, study finds. Australian Geographic, 24th May 2017.

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New paper: 75 years of dryland science

Authors: Aaron C. Greenville, Chris R. Dickman and Glenda M. Wardle

Published in: Plos One


Research gaps in global dryland literature: Research gap distance matrix heat-map (red = high, clear = low) on global dryland literature. The greater the metric the higher the dissimilarity between topics.

Growth in the publication of scientific articles is occurring at an exponential rate, prompting a growing need to synthesise information in a timely manner to combat urgent environmental problems and guide future research. Here, we undertake a topic analysis of dryland literature over the last 75 years (8218 articles) to identify areas in arid ecology that are well studied and topics that are emerging. Four topics — wetlands, mammal ecology, litter decomposition and spatial modelling, were identified as ‘hot topics’ that showed higher than average growth in publications from 1940 to 2015. Five topics — remote sensing, climate, habitat and spatial, agriculture and soils-microbes, were identified as ‘cold topics’, with lower than average growth over the survey period, but higher than average numbers of publications. Topics in arid ecology clustered into seven broad groups on word-based similarity. These groups ranged from mammal ecology and population genetics, broad-scale management and ecosystem modelling, plant ecology, agriculture and ecophysiology, to populations and paleoclimate. These patterns may reflect trends in the field of ecology more broadly. We also identified two broad research gaps in arid ecology: population genetics, and habitat and spatial research. Collaborations between population genetics and ecologists and investigations of ecological processes across spatial scales would contribute profitably to the advancement of arid ecology and to ecology more broadly.


Greenville A.C., Dickman C.R. & Wardle G.M. (2017). 75 years of dryland science: trends and gaps in arid ecology literature. Plos One, 12: e0175014.

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