Introduced plant pathogens can devastate susceptible plant communities, and consequently impact on animal communities reliant on plants for food and habitat. Specifically, plant pathogens change the floristic diversity of vegetation communities, thereby reducing availability of food sources for fauna (e.g. pollen and nectar) and result in major changes to habitat structure when canopy and understorey plant species succumb to disease. Phytophthora cinnamomi poses a threat to flowering plant species (e.g. Banksia species) which are important food sources for nectarivorous fauna. The honey possum (Tarsipes rostratus) is the only obligate nectarivorous non-flying mammal living on a restrictive diet of nectar and pollen consequently, these tiny mammals are likely to be particularly vulnerable to the landscape-wide devastation caused by P. cinnamomi. We investigated habitat selection by honey possums in a vegetation community infested with P. cinnamomi to determine how these mammals respond to habitat affected by this pathogen. Over four seasons, 18 honey possums were fitted with radio-transmitters and tracked to identify habitat preferences. Vegetation surveys were compared for locations selected by honey possums (as determined from tracking) and randomly selected sites. Radio-tracking revealed that sites selected by honey possums were significantly taller, denser, and more floristically diverse than their paired random locations. The presence of P. cinnamomi influences habitat use by honey possums, but animals show resilience in terms of using the best of what is available in both P. cinnamomiaffected and unaffected locations. Habitat patches comprising less susceptible species, or plants that have yet to succumb to infection, provide refuge and food resources for honey possums. Management to reduce the spread of existing P. cinnamomi infestations and prevent contamination of new locations will benefit vegetation communities and associated faunal communities, while identifying honey possum food plant species that are resilient to the pathogen may support revegetation attempts.
Australian Journal of Zoology – CSIRO Publishing
Published: Aug 12, 2016