New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2005) 29(2): 311- 320

Browse on mahoe and kamahi leaf-fall as a trigger for possum control

Research Article
David M. Forsyth 1,2,*
John P. Parkes 1
  1. Landcare Research, P.O. Box 69, Lincoln 8152, New Zealand
  2. Present address: Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, 123 Brown Street, Heidelberg, Victoria 3084, Australia
*  Corresponding author

Introduced brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) are controlled over large parts of New Zealand to protect canopy trees. The condition of canopy trees is one of the cues used to trigger possum control, but selecting an indicator of canopy tree condition is difficult because many factors unrelated to possum browsing can affect canopy condition, and indices based on canopy scoring may not always quickly detect real changes in possum herbivory. We therefore investigated the usefulness of the percentage of fallen mahoe (Melicytus ramiflorus) and kamahi (Weinmannia racemosa) leaves browsed by possums (‘fallen-leaf browse’ or ‘FLB’) as a trigger for control aimed at protecting these tree species. We collected leaves falling from kamahi and mahoe trees every two months for two years at two study areas in the central North Island, one with initially high possum abundance (Oriuwaka) and the other with low possum abundance (Otupaka). We classified each of 92 384 leaves as either not-browsed, possum-browsed or insect-browsed. There was a strong and similar seasonal pattern in the mean number of fallen leaves per tree for both mahoe and kamahi at both study areas; fewest leaves fell in winter, and the most leaves fell in spring and early summer. Mahoe and kamahi FLB exhibited a similar seasonal pattern at both areas, being lowest in winter and highest in spring and early summer. FLB for both mahoe and kamahi declined following control of possums to low densities at Oriuwaka. The proportion of fallen mahoe and kamahi leaves browsed by possums was small compared with those browsed by insects or not browsed. We show that spring/early summer (i.e. September–December) is the best period for sampling FLB and that the mean FLB can be estimated with a CV of 20% if one trap is randomly placed under the canopy of each of 24 randomly located trees. However, CVs were much larger in other seasons and when possum abundance was low. We consider FLB to be a sensible trigger for initiating possum control when the objective of control is to protect canopy trees, but further work is needed to determine the relationships between possum abundance, FLB, canopy condition, and key tree demographic rates.