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Causes and consequences of ground disturbance by feral pigs

Abstract

The ecological impacts of feral pigs (Sus scrofa) are of concern in many places around the world. One noticeable impact is soil disturbance, although the causes and consequences are often unclear. We measured the effect of ground disturbance by feral pigs on seedling recruitment and soil ecology over 25 months on a forested riparian terrace at Waitutu, south Fiordland, New Zealand, and assessed the diet of pigs from the area from stomach contents of animals shot by hunters. Foraging by feral pigs for below-ground food disturbed between 7.4% and 12.4% of the soil. Pigs were seven times more likely to redisturb a site than to disturb a new site. Below-ground food items constituted a third of pigs’ diet and were dominated by stag beetle larvae. Sites disturbed by feral pigs had shorter seedlings compared with undisturbed sites, but this was due to pigs’ choice of sites rather than a consequence of the disturbance. Net temporal changes in density and height of seedlings were similarly slow in both disturbed and undisturbed sites. The basal respiration of microbes in soils recently disturbed by pigs was significantly higher than that for undisturbed soils. There was a suggestion that disturbed soils had higher ratios of fungi to bacteria than undisturbed soils (P = 0.06). This may reflect either disturbance favouring fungi over bacteria or selection of sites with more fungi or more of their main prey, the fungivorous stag beetle Dorcus helmsii. Our results indicate that pigs disturb soil primarily to forage for food and that the consequences of disturbance for seedling regeneration and soil ecology are limited or neutral. The consequences of ground disturbance and predation for populations of animal prey, such as the stag beetles, require further investigation.

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