Northern quoll tracking reveals habitat is key defense against predation

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Australia’s smallest quoll has some pretty special characteristics, and now new research is investigating the northern quoll’s ability to survive in parts of far north Queensland where it was once thought to have disappeared.

Charles Darwin University doctoral candidate Gavin Trewella spent six months tracking northern quolls in the bush near Weipa in Cape York.

Partly backed by mining company Rio Tinto, he used camera traps and GPS transmitters to find out exactly where the quoll population lived.

“Quolls were quite common around Weipa in the 1980s, and then when the cane toads arrived they pretty much disappeared overnight,” Mr Trewalla said.

Since the animal’s rediscovery in 2015, the quolls’ survival amid threats from stuffed cane toads and feral cats has been a mystery.

Northern quolls are listed as endangered in Queensland.(Provided: Charles Darwin University)

The local landscape is the key to survival

Mr Trewella said local conditions around Weipa allowed vegetation to continue to grow during the dry season.

“During the rainy season, a lot of rain falls on the plateaus and the soil under the plateau absorbs a lot of the moisture,” he said.

“That can then come to the surface throughout the dry season through the underground spring system.”

Mr Trewella said that while quolls have been largely devastated by the introduction of cane toads, several populations have stopped eating them.

“Either it’s a genetic component of the species, or it’s just learned behavior that’s been passed down. We’re not entirely sure,” he said.

A large male toad and a baby toad held by Karl Grabasch
Some species of quoll have stopped eating the poisonous toad.(ABC News: Isabella Higgins)

Feral cats also remain a significant problem, significant enough that one of the quolls in the research died of a possible cat attack during the study, but Mr Trewella believes the plateau environments are less suitable to feline hunters as there were fewer fires compared to the surrounding area. .

“In areas with high fire frequency, it removes all vegetation cover and feral cats sense this from miles away and move to these areas because it is so much easier for them to hunt in these environments.

“The fact that these plateau areas have a low fire frequency, there is high vegetation cover [so] the sites are less suitable for hunting feral cats.”

quoll mom and baby
Several camera traps captured family groups after the female was tracked with a GPS transmitter(Provided: Charles Darwin University)

More research needed

The president of the Australian Quoll Conservancy, Alberto Vale, said it was important to look at what factors enable certain populations to cope to help others who are more fragile.

He said it was important though that the investigations be thorough.

“You can’t do what I call a butterfly survey. You come here, come across this plant, do the other, etc. “, did he declare.

“To do proper surveys, you have to do long-term studies, at least 10 years.

Mr Trewella agreed that more surveys, particularly of Cape York, needed to be carried out and said a general lack of understanding of marsupial habitats in places such as Cape York was hampering the ability to conserve them.

“The first step would be to go out and investigate for them.

“Go to these really tough places on the Cape York Peninsula, courtesy of the landowners and native communities, and just look for them and try to figure out where they are still. In fact, get a good idea of ​​what comes to the people.”

A quoll on a rock looks up with glowing eyes caught in a night vision camera
Camera traps were used to monitor northern quolls in the bush around Weipa.(Provided: Charles Darwin University)

He said it was important that investigations be thorough.

“To do proper investigations, you have to do the long term, a minimum of 10 years.”

Role of citizen science

Mr Trewella said more surveys, particularly of Cape York, needed to be carried out.

“I think a lot of people have accepted that the northern quoll no longer exists,” he said.

Mr Vale says he thinks private organizations and volunteer groups need to be more involved to help fill this knowledge gap.

“We have the resources. We have the manpower.”

For now, although the people of Weipa are doing well, Trewella said he remains concerned about the lack of pacts to protect endemic landscapes on private land.

“It’s up to the whim of the landowners to determine how well these northern quolls are protected,” he said.

Mr Trewella said as part of his research he also works with landowners to develop the best fire regimes to avoid impacting quolls or exacerbating the threat of feral cats.

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