Ecosystem impacts of feral rabbits on World Heritage sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island: a palaeoecological perspective
The introduction and establishment of non-indigenous species through human activities often poses a major threat to natural biodiversity. In many parts of the world management efforts are therefore focused on their eradication. The environment of World Heritage sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island has been severely damaged by non-indigenous species including rabbits, rats and mice, introduced from the late AD 1800s. An extensive eradication programme is now underway which aims to remove all rabbits and rodents. To provide a long-term context for assessing the Island's pre-invasion state, invasion impacts, and to provide a baseline for monitoring its recovery, we undertook a palaeoecological study using proxies in a lake sediment core. Sedimentological and diatom analyses revealed an unproductive catchment and lake environment persisted for ca. 7100 years prior to the introduction of the invasive species. After ca. AD 1898, unprecedented and statistically significant environmental changes occurred. Lake sediment accumulation rates increased >100 times due to enhanced catchment inputs and within-lake production. Total carbon and total nitrogen contents of the sediments increased by a factor of four. The diatom flora became dominated by two previously rare species. The results strongly suggest a causal link between the anthropogenic introduction of rabbits and the changes identified in the lake sediments. This study provides an example of how palaeoecology may be used to determine baseline conditions prior to the introduction of non-indigenous species, quantify the timing and extent of changes, and help monitor the recovery of the ecosystem and natural biodiversity following successful non-indigenous species eradication programmes.
Authors: Saunders, K.M., Harrison, J.J., Hodgson, D.A., de Jong, R., Mauchle, F., McMinn, A.