Linking trophic cascades to changes in desert dune geomorphology using high-resolution drone data
Vegetation cover is fundamental in the formation and maintenance of geomorphological features in dune systems. In arid Australia, increased woody shrub cover has been linked to removal of the apex predator (Dingoes, Canis dingo) via subsequent trophic cascades. We ask whether this increase in shrubs can be linked to altered physical characteristics of the dunes. We used drone-based remote sensing to measure shrub density and construct three-dimensional models of dune morphology. Dunes had significantly different physical characteristics either side of the 'dingo-proof fence', inside which dingoes are systematically eradicated and shrub density is higher over vast spatial extents. Generalized additive models revealed that dunes with increased shrub density were higher, differently shaped and more variable in height profile. We propose that low shrub density induces aeolian and sedimentary processes that result in greater surface erosion and sediment transport, whereas high shrub density promotes dune stability. We speculate that increased vegetation cover acts to push dunes towards an alternate stable state, where climatic variation no longer has a significant effect on their morphodynamic state within the bi-stable state model. Our study provides evidence that anthropogenically induced trophic cascades can indirectly lead to large-scale changes in landscape geomorphology.