Date of this Version
Published in G. A. Lameed, editor. Biodiversity Enrichment in a Diverse World. InTech Open Access, 2012. DOI: 10.5772/50246
Large predators have an indispensable role in structuring food webs and maintaining ecological processes for the benefit of biodiversity at lower trophic levels. Such roles are widely evident in marine and terrestrial systems [1, 2]. Large predators can indirectly alleviate predation on smaller (and often threatened) fauna and promote vegetation growth by interacting strongly with sympatric carnivore and herbivore species (e.g. [3-5]). The local extinction of large predators can therefore have detrimental effects on biodiversity , and their subsequent restoration has been observed to produce positive biodiversity outcomes in many cases . Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the restoration of gray wolves Canis lupus to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of North America. Since the reintroduction of 66 wolves in 1995 , wolf numbers in the area have climbed to ~2000, some large herbivores and mesopredators have substantially declined, and some fauna and flora at lower trophic levels have increased (see , and references therein). Similar experiences with some other large predators mean that they are now considered to be of high conservation value in many parts of the world [1, 2, 7], and exploring their roles and functions has arguably been one of the most prominent fields of biodiversity conservation research in the last 10–15 years.
Large terrestrial predators are often top-predators (or apex predators), but not all top predators are large or associated with biodiversity benefits [5, 9]. For example, feral cats Felis catus or black rats Rattus rattus may be the largest predators on some islands, but their effects on endemic fauna are seldom positive [10-13]. In geographically larger systems, coyotes (Canis latrans)  or dingoes (Canis lupus dingo and other free-roaming Canis) , for example, can exacerbate wildlife management problems in highly perturbed ecosystems, where they have the capacity to devastate populations of smaller prey [5, 16-18]. Hence, it is not the trophic position of a predator that determines their ecological effects, but rather their behavior, impact and function . This is most important for small- and medium-sized predators which can have positive, negative or neutral effects depending on a range of context-specific factors.
Excluding humans, dingoes are the largest terrestrial predator on mainland Australia but, at an average adult body weight of only 15–20 kg , are atypical top-predators [20-22]. No other continent has such a small top-predator, and canids have rarely (if ever) been a continent’s largest predator, a role typically filled by ursids or felids. Australia’s former terrestrial top-predator, a similar-sized marsupial known as the thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger Thylacinus cynocephalus, was quickly replaced by dingoes as the largest predator as thylacines became extinct coincident with the introduction of dingoes to Australia about 4000–5000 years ago [23-25]. Like all dogs, dingoes are derived from wolves by human selection [26-29], yet it is a mistake to equate dingoes with wolves (sensu [30, 31]) simply because they share a common origin [9, 22, 32] and display some wolf-like behaviors . Hence, the net effects of dingoes on biodiversity might not be readily deduced from studies of other top-predators. Regardless of their derivation and exotic origin, dingoes are common across most of Australia’s mainland biomes [33, 34], although their densities have been reduced to very low levels in some regions (<25% of Australia) where sheep Ovis aries and goats Capra hircus are farmed [15, 34].