Rain, rats and pythons: climate-driven population dynamics of predators and prey in tropical Australia

Thomas Madsen*, Beata Ujvari, Richard Shine, Mats Olsson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Citations (Scopus)


All natural populations fluctuate in abundance and age structure through time; understanding why they do so is a critical step towards their effective management and conservation. However, the long-term data sets needed for such an understanding are rarely available, especially for tropical organisms. A 17-year capture-mark-recapture study yielded detailed information on the demography of water pythons (Liasis fuscus) and their main prey, the dusky rat (Rattus colletti), on the Adelaide River flood plain in tropical Australia. The link between annual rainfall patterns and rat demography was highly non-linear. Rat numbers were low during years with low and high rainfall at the end of the wet season (April). Numbers of both predators and prey fluctuated considerably among years. Annual fluctuations in rat numbers generated a corresponding variation in rates of female python reproduction, python body condition and survival. Although variation in recruitment, survival and prey abundance all had a significant impact on annual fluctuations in python numbers, our analyses suggest that recruitment constituted the main determinant in driving the population dynamics of these large tropical predators. In combination with our other studies on this system, the data show that population dynamics of the water python population is ultimately driven by annual variation in rainfall, mediated via shifts in prey availability. The water pythons and the dusky rats of the Adelaide River flood plain thus demonstrate an unusually clear and direct link between an abiotic factor (rainfall) and predator-prey population dynamics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-37
Number of pages8
JournalAustral Ecology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • flood plain
  • population dynamics
  • rainfall
  • rodent
  • snake


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