Southern Australia’s Strzelecki Desert is home to two very different landscapes: an area of 10-meter-high sand dunes with patches of dense woody shrubs, and—just a few kilometers away—shorter and flatter dunes surrounded by sparse vegetation. The reason for the difference? Dingoes.
That’s the conclusion of a study published this week in the Journal of The Royal Society Interface, in which researchers compared the landscape on either side of a 5000-kilometer-long wire mesh dingo fence. Built almost a century ago to keep Australia’s wild dogs from private land and livestock, the structure appears to have altered an entire ecosystem, the team found. When the researchers compared drone-captured images of the dunes and vegetation cover on either side of the fence to historical aerial photographs taken between 1948 and 1999, they discovered that there are about 60 more woody shrubs per hectare on the side of the fence with no dingoes than on the other side. The dunes on the nondingo side are also about 66 centimeters taller.
The likely explanation, the team says, is that without a top predator like the dingo, smaller hunters such as foxes and cats have flourished, decimating prey species like hopping mice and rabbits. With fewer animals left to eat the plant seeds, the shrub cover has increased. The shrubs hold down sand and cause winds to skim over their tops, causing dunes to grow taller and carving the landscape differently on the two sides of the fence.