New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2009) 33(1): 24- 31

Skink and invertebrate abundance in relation to vegetation, rabbits and predators in a New Zealand dryland ecosystem

Research Article
Grant Norbury 1*
Richard Heyward 1,2
John Parkes 3
  1. Landcare Research, PO Box 282, Alexandra 9340, New Zealand
  2. Current address: Waldron Rd, RD 1, Alexandra, New Zealand
  3. Landcare Research, PO Box 40, Lincoln 7640, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

We explored the relationships between ground vegetation, ground fauna (native skinks and invertebrates), rabbits, and predators in a modified New Zealand dryland ecosystem. We hypothesised that vegetation cover would provide habitat for ground fauna. We also hypothesised that rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) would reduce the abundance of these fauna by reducing vegetation, and by providing prey for mammalian predators (cats Felis catus and ferrets Mustela putorius) that consume ground fauna as secondary prey. We measured these variables at 30 sites across three pastoral properties in the South Island in 1996 and 2002. There were mostly positive relationships between vegetation ground cover and fauna captures in pitfall traps. Relatively few beetles and caterpillars were caught where cover was less than 80%, no millipedes were caught where cover was less than 70%, and few spiders and mostly no skinks, crickets, flies or slugs were caught where vegetation cover was less than 50%. Most grasshoppers were caught where cover ranged from 30 to 80%. Faunal species richness was also positively related to cover. This supports our hypothesis that ground vegetation provides habitat for skinks and invertebrates in this ecosystem. The introduction of rabbit haemorrhagic disease in 1997 provided a natural experiment to test the hypothesised indirect effects of rabbits on ground fauna. Declines in rabbits varied between properties, and vegetation cover and predator abundance changed according to the magnitude of these declines. However, skink and invertebrate abundance did not track these changes as expected, but instead varied more or less consistently between properties. Some fauna increased (skink captures quadrupled and cricket captures nearly doubled), others declined (flies, caterpillars and spiders), and some did not change (beetles, millipedes, slugs and grasshoppers, and faunal species richness and diversity). Therefore, rabbits, predators and vegetation did not affect changes in skinks and invertebrates in consistent ways. The dynamics of ground fauna are likely to be more influenced by factors other than those we measured.