In the Spotlight

Nathan Beerkens - Wednesday, January 24, 2018

- In the Spotlight -

Finding animals after dark

Written by Nathan Beerkens

This blog is a tribute to an unsung hero of conservation. A stalwart of science. The spotlight.

Lighting up the night is nothing new for people (who are notoriously bad at seeing in the dark!). Thousands of years ago we had candles, then oil lamps, then light bulbs and finally, in 1899, we invented the handheld flashlight.

By the 1950’s, spotlights were taking a hold in wildlife science and researchers could unlock more of the nocturnal world than ever before. You could look farther across plains, higher up trees and deeper into caves than ever thought possible.

Two spotlights used at Arid Recovery. The red filter lets us watch animals without affecting their night vision.

The spotlight revolutionised wildlife monitoring. Scientists set up regular spotlighting routes to track changes in animal abundances. We use this same tactic today, alongside BHP Olympic Dam. By spotlighting the same routes every three months for years, we can show how wild animal numbers (native and feral) have changed over time in Roxby Downs, Andamooka and our reserve. The data collected over the years has been useful in clearly showing the benefits of calicivirus in not only drastically dropping rabbit numbers but also in reducing the numbers of feral cats and foxes. Read more.

And the beauty of it? It’s simple. Cheap and simple. In saying that though, there’s a few tricks that could mean the difference between seeing heaps of animals, or none at all. Here’s a spotlighting 101:

  1. Hold the torch at eye level. And be prepared to see many eyes staring back at you. Cats, rabbits, foxes, kangaroos, sheep, nightjars, geckos and more. Also, spiders. Many spiders. If you’re brave enough, follow a ground spider’s eyeshine and you will find it. The bright shine will suddenly transform into a living eight-legged creature in front your eyes - maybe tiny, maybe huge. It’s truly a wonder.
  2. Shine at the horizon. If you’re in a car (or even walking), you’ll see more if the top of your light beam is touching the horizon. It can be tempting to shine exactly where you want to look, but shining at the horizon will open up a bigger field of view to see.
  3. Sweep forwards and back. Shine your light forwards, then back in line with yourself and then forwards again. This back and forth sweeping will help you find animals that don’t have much eyeshine, or try to scurry and hide.

Barking Gecko (Underwoodisaurus milii) found at Arid Recovery whilst spotlighting. Photo: Nathan Beerkens

Nowadays, there’s a new revolution in thermal cameras. And they have merit. These cameras, used like an old-school video camera, give warm-blooded animals nowhere to hide against a cold background.

But they have their problems. Firstly, they’re expensive. Secondly, you might need to use them AND a spotlight at the same time (thermal camera to find the animal and spotlight to ID it). And finally, in hot places like Arid Recovery, the background can easily be as hot as the animals we are trying to find! So all the thermal camera sees is a flat wall of heat.

Technology will continue to improve, and no doubt the thermal camera will one day become a key part of the wildlife scientist’s toolbox. But until then, and probably far into the future, the humble spotlight will continue to shine bright, giving us remarkable access to the nocturnal world.

Stickie Haven to go ahead

Nathan Beerkens - Thursday, November 30, 2017

Stickie Haven to go ahead


We put the Greater Stick-nest Rat in the spotlight in “Stickie September” and asked for your help to build a haven for these animals around the new Education Centre at Arid Recovery.

Thanks to our family of supporters and quite a number of new friends, we were able to raise over $5,000. The project can now go ahead.

Critical to our success was this article that appeared in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. We were flooded with adoptions for Stick-nest Rats, which until then had been our least popular threatened species for adopting.

The haven project can now proceed. We will fence off several hectares around the Research Station and new Education Centre using 50mm netting. Stick-nest rats can easily move in and out of that size netting, but bettongs that compete for the same food resources will be excluded. With a little bit of planting, we’ll encourage a garden to grow Stickies’ favourite food plants like quandongs and succulent saltbushes.

As well as being a wonderful place for Stickies, the Haven should also mean that visitors have a better chance of seeing and appreciating Stick-nest Rats as they stroll around at night. Encountering these animals is truly delightful, as these gorgeous dumpy rats often get about in pairs and run about playfully circling each other.

A Stickie peers through a roll of wire we’ll use to construct the Haven


Just… a bit… higher… Donated telemetry towers give us the tracking edge

Nathan Beerkens - Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Just… a bit… higher…
Donated telemetry towers give us the tracking edge


Radio telemetry for following wild animals is not a new science. The basics of VHF (Very High Frequency) radio transmitters haven’t changed since the 1980s (read this article from the archives). Batteries power the transmitter to bleep out at regular intervals, essentially just a very boring radio-program you detect with an antenna. The larger the battery, and therefore the larger the transmitter unit, the further the signal can go.

Radio transmitter technology has come a long way in miniaturisation. There are now transmitters small enough to attach to microbats and even butterflies – which are unthinkably tiny at 0.2 grams. Check out this clever lab group sciencing up the art of butterfly tracking.

As wonderful as this miniaturisation is, the fundamental principles of tracking are unchanged. Little transmitters with little batteries can’t transmit their signals very far. Even when units can transmit across a kilometre or so, the signal is often blocked by topography and vegetation. This is particularly problematic for burrowing animals like our burrowing bettongs where the signal transmission is even more limited.

The tried and true method in every field researcher’s book to deal with this challenge is to get a bit of height.

Hugh McGregor trying to pick up a signal with the ‘edge’ given him by a metre’s worth of pallets.

Getting height in the flat desert landscape at Arid Recovery isn’t easy. We’ll use anything we can to get just that little bit higher: the top of the vehicle cab, a pile of pallets and even a broom handle on the end of the receiving antenna.

Researchers in the 1980s were facing this same challenge to track feral goats in the Barossa Valley. They used 12 m tall towers with Yagi antennas mounted at the top to get some much needed height. Thanksfully, the Department of Primary Industries have donated these to us. There are two poles nested together, allowing the antennas at the top to be rotated from the ground to hone in on the direction a signal is coming from.

John Crompton steadies a tower as it is strained down. Photo: Nathan Beerkens

The University of New South Wales team is making use of the towers in the Dingo Pen at Arid Recovery right now, where bettongs have been translocated as part of the prey naivety project.

Next year we hope the towers will be helpful in following Western Quolls as we monitor a reintroduction to the Reserve. Thanks to the Department’s donation, this handy equipment is still useful and very much appreciated 30 years on.


By Katherine Tuft 

On air with the Conservation Conversation

Nathan Beerkens - Tuesday, November 28, 2017

On Air with the Conservation Conversation

By Maddy Wilcox-Kerr, Arid Recovery Intern

In September Arid Recovery hit the airwaves with ‘the Conservation Conversation and if you haven’t tuned in, then you’ve been missing out!

Exploring all things animals, the show focuses on questions that kids from the area have asked each month at market day. We hope to get the kids thinking about wildlife, biology and conservation.

As expected, the kids are most interested in animals of the Aussie outback and we leave no stone unturned in our quest to provide them with fun facts. We’ve covered everything from roos, emus, pythons and even had interest in the burrowing bettong (oh, boy that got us talking!).  But every now and then we get a question that will leave even us biology nerds a little perplexed.  Last week we had a young boy enquire about the number of owls left in the wild. Although I could tell you that there are 11 species of owls living in Australia at the moment, answering how many there are was another matter. Nonetheless, after a quick consultation with our good ‘ol friend Google we were able to provide a somewhat more detailed answer.

On the other hand, some of the less difficult “questions” give us a chuckle. My personal favourites include “Sheep have baby lambs” and “snakes are poison”. I find it hard not to laugh at these comments, but here at Arid Recovery we can turn any small anecdote into an in-depth discussion about wildlife and the natural world.

Without a doubt, there has been a certain re-occurring theme over the course of the show. Kids just love to talk about snakes. Averaging 6 snake questions a show, the kids from Roxby Downs are going to be herpetologists before we know it. If there isn’t at least one child in every family in Roxby that can tell us why snakes are venomous then we have not been doing our jobs properly. 

Finally, one thing that does set us apart from other radio shows in the region is our good taste in music. True to our form our playlists incorporate an eclectic mix of old and new tunes inspired by the animal kingdom. In fact, my favourite part of the show is the preparation of songs for our playlists. From Karma chameleon by Boy George to Cats in the cradle by Harry Chapin, no song is too daggy for the Conservation Conversation.

Our final show for the year is scheduled for the 12th of December at 3pm. So, if you’re interested in animals, want to bop along to some classics or get involved in the general shenanigans that is the Conservation Conversation then don’t forget to tune in to RoxFM 105.5 or stream online


Roxby Downs: A Gateway to the Outback

Nathan Beerkens - Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Roxby Downs: A Gateway to the Outback


Roxby Downs is surrounded by outback wonders that are waiting to be explored. Arid Recovery intern Peta Zivec takes you on a virtual tour.


1. Andamooka

Andamooka is an opal mining town 30km east of Roxby Downs. Let’s put it this way, it’s a very different type of mining than what goes down in Roxby. The town developed from scattered miners’ camps in the 1930’s and certainly has a “Wild West” appeal. Nowadays it’s a sea of mullock heaps with dirt tracks to find your way around town, with scattered homes nestled into the hillsides. Highlights include the Andamooka Yacht Club, which is a trendy Melbourne-style café blonked into the middle of the desert, the public noodling area (aka opal fossicking) and the cemetery on top of the hill which features quirky grave stones of the forefathers of Andamooka.


2. Desert mound springs

Amongst the desolate desert in what appears to be a very hostile arid landscape, up pops a mound spring which is full of life, water and aquatic plants. Mound springs are created by the pressure from the Great Artisan Basin pushing water to the surface. Two mound springs (The Bubbler and the Blanche Cup) are located 190km North of Roxby Downs in the Wabma Kararbu Mound Spring national park. These arid wetlands are an astonishing feat of nature and worth a visit.


3. Lake Eyre

Words to describe Lake Eyre are; breathe taking, mind blowing and remarkable. Lake Eyre has always been very high on my bucket list and this giant expanse of shimmering salt did not disappoint. A chance to experience Australia’s lowest point and largest lake is something unforgettable. With or without water, the immense expanse of space and beauty is incredible. The different landscape types on the Oodnadatta track on the way to Lake Eyre are half the fun and in parts I was convinced we could have been on the moon.


4. William Creek

William Creek is surrounded by the world’s largest cattle station (6 million hectares and the size of Israel), has the world’s most remote pub and is South Australia’s smallest town. Isn’t that enough reason to want to go!? William Creek pub makes a mean beef burger, which is worth the drive alone, and you can also get scenic flights over Lake Eyre. The drive to William Creek along the Oodnadatta track is littered with relics of the Old Ghan railway line. Ruins of rail stations, the water filling tanks for the steam trains and bridges across creek crossing adds to the aesthetic of the outback experience.


5. Gammon Ranges and Arkaroola

The Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges are a bit more of a substantial drive from Roxby (approx. 400km), but the drive is well worth it. Head North from Roxby along the Borefield Rd and be sure to stop at the Lake Eyre Yacht club in Maree, check out the Farina Ruins and you MUST get a Quondong pie at the Coply Bakery. The Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges are the Northern Part of the Flinders Ranges and are a geological haven. Pushing of tectonic plates, erosion and a lot of time has created a spectacular landscape. There are fantastic hiking tracks at Arkaroola, plenty of yellow-footed rock wallabies to spot and beautiful vistas of arid mountain ranges.


6. Arid Recovery

Lastly, Arid Recovery is one hell of a place to check out. I invite you to come and join us for a sunset tour, listen and learn what we are all about and soak in the beautiful desert. The red sand dunes, the gibber plains and the fascinating mammals that emerge when the sun goes down are truly unique experiences. A glimpse of what Australia might have looked and felt like before feral foxes and cats roamed freely. To spot a Bettong hopping by or see a Bilby trotting in the distance, is a special thing, and it is a shame not many Australian have had the chance.

I encourage all of Arid Recovery’s followers to put Roxby Downs on top of their travel list and come play with some Bettongs!

By Peta Zivec

Arid Recovery intern

Contraception

Nathan Beerkens - Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Burrowing bettong contraception trial off to a great start

By Holly Cope, PhD candidate from the University of Sydney

All photos taken by Holly Cope.

A bit about me…

I’m currently a PhD candidate at Sydney University studying under the supervision of Dr Catherine Herbert, examining the use of contraception in the management of endangered species. Most of my work has been on Tasmanian Devils in the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) free insurance population. We are using contraception on selected female devils based on their genetics with the aim of maximising genetic diversity, and only giving females which have not yet reproduced or are genetically under-represented the chance to breed. This also lets us keep them housed in groups, which helps to stop them from adapting to captivity, while keeping a mixture of breeding and non-breeding females in with males. This is the best way to make the most of limited resources and housing space in the conservation program.

Holly Cope with a Western Barred Bandicoot.

Why am I using contraception on burrowing bettongs?

My project at Arid Recovery examines another way of using contraception on endangered species. Burrowing bettongs are excellent breeders, and with the removal of most predators, have become locally overabundant within the reserve, with around 8 thousand individuals living inside the fenced enclosure. They are damaging the vegetation and overrunning the other species housed in the reserve, so Arid Recovery is keen to reduce their population to a more manageable size in an ethical and cost-effective way. Fertility control using contraceptive implants is one of the options being considered, but we need to figure out a few things first – does the Suprelorin® implant work on female bettongs? How long will it last? Are there any negative side effects? How many would we need to implant to have an impact on the population? Is this a feasible option logistically and economically?  I aim to answer these questions with a pilot study on around 50 female bettongs in the 1st expansion of the reserve.

Burrowing Bettong in a cage trap.

How does it work?

The Suprelorin implant gradually releases a gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonist called deslorelin as it dissolves. The continuous release of deslorelin affects the pituitary gland, and stops it from releasing follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH), which are both responsible for ovulation. Without FSH and LH, the bettongs will be unable to ovulate and shouldn’t conceive any offspring for some time.

How did it go?

Over 10 nights in August 2017 I set traps with the help of my volunteer, Lachlan, in the late afternoon, checked them after sunset and then reset them for checking again at sunrise. We set and checked traps 408 times and captured bettongs 347 times. We identified 119 individuals (48 females and 71 males), and treated 30 females with contraceptive implants.

For every bettong that we captured, we gave them ear tags if they weren’t already tagged, measured their head and pes (foot) lengths as indicators of age, checked their body condition score and measured tail width as indicators of condition. We also checked their gender and then either measured testes width or checked the reproductive status of the pouch. The boys didn’t appreciate that in the cold mornings! We had four females with small joeys less than a week old, a few others had young at foot and most others had recently weaned a joey. We injected contraceptive implants in 30 females overall (our minimum target), leaving every third untreated to act as a control in the study (to compare the final results against the contracepted females). We had hoped to treat 50 females, but we found a 2:1 ratio of males to females in traps which made it difficult to catch enough!


Injection of the conctraceptive implant, Suprelorin®, under the loose skin between a bettong's shoulders.

We also found a few other mammals enjoying the peanut bait ball! We microchipped and health checked a bilby and a few western barred bandicoots, and released some Spinifex hopping mice and plains mice. We spotted a shingleback and a bearded dragon out sunning themselves too which was quite a treat!

A gorgeous Greater Bilby being processed.

Where to now?

I will be returning every 2-3 months over the next 12 months to re-trap the females in the study and check inside their pouches. Bettongs are able to mate while their current joey is still in the pouch, and this new embryo enters suspended animation (embryonic diapause) until their joey leaves the pouch. This means that some bettongs may have already conceived a new joey before contraception, which we can work out by figuring out the birth date of their next joey. We hope to see no new pouch young conceived after contraception. We will also be monitoring for any weight gain, which can be a common side effect of contraception. The information generated through this project will be given to Arid Recovery managers to help them decide on a course of action for reducing and then maintaining the bettong population at a more sustainable density. If the bettongs appear to still be contracepted at the end of the 12 months, monitoring may be continued by Arid Recovery staff/interns to see when the bettongs begin breeding again. The findings from this research will also be relevant to other reserves housing bettongs or small marsupials that may be facing similar issues.

What a beautiful place to work!

        

  

 

A Stickie Living Situation

Nathan Beerkens - Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Stickie Living Situation

By Emily Gregg and Maddy Wilcox-Kerr

Celebrating the architecture of stick-nest rats

All the animals in our arid environment must find some kind of shelter to protect them from the heat of summer days, and the cool of winter nights. Most animals retreat into burrows, including small mammals such as the Spinifex Hopping Mouse, and larger ones such as the Burrowing Bettong. It’s not just our nocturnal mammals either; our reptile species also retreat to burrows during the night.

Burrows are sprawled everywhere throughout this landscape, to the point where you’re hard pressed to walk around at night here without tripping over one. These dark, sandy sanctuaries clearly provide outstanding protection from the arid elements.

Yet the Greater Stick-Nest Rat, aka Stickies, builds itself an entirely different kind of living room. Taking his or her time, a Stickie will, as their name suggests, collect a bunch of sticks and construct a nest. This isn’t a simple collection of sticks; the rats actually stick these sticks together, and with no super glue in their back sheds, they are somewhat limited in their sticky substance of choice.

Like many desert animals, Stickies don’t get a lot of water; they survive mostly off the moisture within their food. As a result, their urine is thick and sticky, almost like honey, and honey seems like a perfect substitute for glue, doesn’t it? So, yes, the rats use their urine to stick their little sticky houses together, displaying an industriousness we can surely all admire.

Since we are lucky enough to accommodate these cool critters, our team has noticed a few different styles of Stickie nests around the reserve, and we thought we should share them with you!

The Granny Flat

With the kids growing up and new family members moving in, these Stickies needed to upsize their home. Adding a granny flat to the main bungalow allows the family to prepare for the future. At Arid Recovery, it is not uncommon for Stickies to build homes up to 2m wide with intricate tunnel systems connecting sites to outside areas. In the future, these two nests may become one.



The Squatter

Forget Ned Kelly or ‘Mad Dog Morgan’, the Aussie outback has a new wave of thieving bandits. Underneath our research station we have a squatter decorating his house with stolen goods. Upon closer inspection of this nest we’ve come across pens, forks and flagging tape that look suspiciously familiar. Sometimes, Stickies will incorporate unnatural materials they find to add structure and strength to their home. Although these materials are rightfully ours, we are putting them on loan until further notice.



The Rocky Outcrop

"Little Stickie, little Stickie, let me come in."
"No, no, not by the hair on my chinny chin chin."
"Then I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house down!"

But the third little Stickie had built his house from Bricks and the Big Bad Dingo could not get in.

Stick-nest Rats are very resourceful, and will use whatever ready materials they can find. This inventive rat took the opportunity to build a fortress within a boulder pile by filling all the gaps between the rocks.



The Outhouse

Quintessentially Australian Stickies may choose to construct their home in the iconic outback dunny. The Outhouse will provide the Stickie with water and protect them from predators, sounds very tempting doesn’t it? Despite the smell, we have one keen Stickie who has begun their nest construction between the walls of Arid Recovery’s drop toilet. In our opinion, this Stickie has poor taste and will need to be relocated to a more suitable environment.



The Multicultural Suburb

Multiculturalism is a reality of Australian life and living in an ethnically diverse suburb keeps things interesting. Living harmoniously alongside Bettongs and Bilbies, Stickies are well and truly contributing to a diverse Australia. Some Stickies are redefining what it means to be part of a multicultural Australia and are seeking refuge inside the bettongs’ deep cool burrows to escape the extreme heat of the summer. This behaviour is not uncommon, during the hottest hours of the day most mammals like to retreat below ground.



The Modern Family

Taking the Multicultural Suburb to the next level, "The Modern Family" is a cooperative project between Stickies and Bettongs to create the ultimate warren. In most cases you’ll find these sorts of structures occupied by both Stickie and Bettong families. Because they have different foraging and sleeping habits these sorts of arrangements work quite well.



The Brutalist

Simple, powerful, intimidating. We have one architect out at our reserve willing to experiment with late 20th century styles. This is "The Brutalist", constructed in a pile of star pickets at our fencing stockpile. The ruggedness of this work is characteristic of its genre placing us in the hall of fame alongside The Australian National Gallery and UTS Tower in Sydney. 



The Mobile Home

For all those Stickies with wanderlust there is no need to buy a permanent home when you can be out there travelling the world. This construction may not be the most durable option, but for Stickies who are regularly on the move, a mobile home can be quite appealing.



The Ghost Town

These are the remains of a nest that was active 100 years ago in a breakaway overhang in outback South Australia. The nest would have been used by many generations of Stick-nest Rats over the years but is now silent and empty.

These spooky nests can be found right across the arid and semi-arid zones and are a poignant reminder of what we've lost.

Photo taken on Copper Hills Station by Peter Copley.



The Conclusion
If you want to learn more, head over to the species’ information page. If you want to help these guys out please consider adopting a Stick-Nest Rat or donating to Arid Recovery, so we can continue protecting these amazing little creatures.

Does an animal’s name affect whether people care about it?

Nathan Beerkens - Friday, September 08, 2017

Does an animal’s name affect whether people care about it?

By Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London

It is an unfortunate but unavoidable fact that the amount of attention that different species receive often has little to do with their ecological importance, or any other scientific measure of “value”. Most members of the public care more about koalas than they do about clams, because we find it so much easier to relate to cute animals like mammals (for one thing, they have faces). This has consequences for our relationship with these species, including how easy it is to garner support for their conservation.

A rat by any other name would look as sweet

However, I would argue it’s not just how species look, but also what we call them that impacts upon how people consider them. I manage a zoology museum in London, and in my experience of talking to our visitors it’s clear that certain animal names bring about an instant negative reaction in many people. Chief among them is “rat”, and Australia has a lot of rats.

Greater stick nest rats are one of Australia’s many native rats. Photo: Hugh McGregor

My particular zoological passion is Australian mammals and I’m currently at Arid Recovery to support their ecological research programs. Encountering the incredible mammals that are thriving here on the reserve made me think about the importance of the English names these species have been given.

How to be a mammal

There are three ways to be a mammal, and their definitions are tied to the way they reproduce. First, monotremes lay eggs, and comprise just a handful of living species, restricted to Australia and New Guinea: the platypus and echidnas. Second, marsupials give birth to tiny young after a very brief period in the womb, and then do most of their development suckling milk on a teat (often in a pouch). The approximately 335 species of marsupials are only found in Australasia and the Americas. The third and by far the biggest group (over 5,000 species, with global distribution) is the placental mammals, which give birth to well-developed young after a relatively long period in the womb, and finish off their development with a short period suckling milk.

Australia is not just a land of marsupials

Australasia is the only place where all three groups are found (which is one of the reasons why I find it so fascinating), but the public perception that they enjoy is not evenly spread. I think Australia’s native placental mammals get a raw deal. It comes as a surprise to many people that nearly half of Australia’s land mammals are not marsupials. Everybody knows Australia has lots of bats, but I’ve had many conversations with people who weren’t aware that Australia also has native rodents. In fact, they comprise nearly a quarter of all Australian terrestrial mammals.

A native Spinifex hopping mouse re-released after a survey at Arid Recovery.

“You dirty rat!”

The word “rat” tends to bring about a negative emotional reaction; perhaps even one of disgust. Black rats (Rattus rattus and Rattus tanezumi), brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) and Pacific rats (Rattus exulans) are native to Asia but have been spread by people across the globe for millennia. They have become universally associated with disease, filth and have a general “pest” status.

Unfortunately the strength of the negative public image of these “bad” rats can easily rub off on the environmentally important native rodents that are also called rat.

Rats for kids

If nearly a quarter of Aussie land mammals are rodents, why are there so few (if any?) kids’ books or cartoons about them? Wombats, possums, devils, quolls, kangaroos, platypuses, quolls and koalas fill children’s libraries, but why no native mice and rats? Perhaps this helps explain why so many people are under the impression that Australia doesn’t have any native rodents.

Rodents have been here in Australia for at least 4-5 million years, and have arrived by hopping from island to island from mainland Asia in a number of waves. They cover almost the full gamut of terrestrial diets (from seed-, leaf- and fruit-eaters to predatory carnivores), and are found in every kind of habitat.

A black-footed tree-rat in Kakadu, Northern Territory. Photo: Michael Beerkens

Rats are losing the rat race

Arid Recovery is home to a number of ratty beasts, including the most significant population of greater stick-nest rats on the Australian mainland. Following European invasion of Australia, the cats and foxes that the settlers brought with them spread like wildfire across much of the country (along with a number of other introduced species including black and brown rats). At least 29 native mammal species have since become extinct (14 of which were rodents), and the majority of the others have suffered dramatic range reductions.

Greater stick-nest rats just managed to cling on to their existence on a couple of offshore islands, in the absence of introduced predators, from where they were reintroduced to Arid Recovery. Their close relatives the lesser stick-nest rats (which also would have once been found across much of the arid zone) were not so fortunate – they became extinct by around 1950.

Because of the impact introduced predators are having on Australia’s native rodents, it’s critical that organisations like Arid Recovery are able to protect the surviving populations. In their absence the ecosystems do not function properly, and entire habitats can collapse. While it’s relatively easy to get the public to get behind charismatic species like bilbies, they have to work harder to communicate the importance of native rodents like stick-nest rats.

Rebranding the rats

I’m not sure how I feel about this, but a number of native rodents have been rebranded to remove the word “rat” from their name, which may help with their public image. After the predator-proof fence was built at Arid Recovery, the threatened plains mouse – which existed in low numbers in the region – colonised the reserve and boomed in the absence of cats. Until recently, this species had been known as the “plains rat”. Similarly the prehensile tailed-rat of north Queensland has been rebranded “tree mouse”, which certainly sounds cuter.

The rodent formerly known as “plains rat”

Marsupials are not exempt from this topic. One of the earliest European descriptions of an Australian animal was of the quokkas of Rottnest Island.  In 1696 William de Vlamingh gave the island its name (meaning “Rats’ Nest” in his native Duutch). Nicolaes Witsen reported on the voyage: “[Vlamingh] found no people but a large number of rats, nearly as big as cats, which had a pouch below their throat into which one could put one’s hand”.

 

Rat-kangaroos?

Similarly the bettongs that will be familiar to anyone who has visited Arid Recovery after dark were called “rat-kangaroos” by the first British colonist in 1788, and the name stuck. Whenever I discuss working with bettongs I see people crinkle their nose at the idea of a “rat-kangaroo”, presumably because of the connotations of the word “rat”.

Bettongs were described as “rat-kangaroos” by early British colonists. Photo: Jack Ashby

In the cases of the bettongs and quokkas, it’s not the desire to remove the word “rat” that was the driver behind the name change. These names are anglicised versions of Indigenous words for these animals. The act of naming was part of the colonisation process, and we have/had no real cause to overwrite the Indigenous names with English ones. At risk of oversimplification, by giving them back their Indigenous names, we recognise the importance of animals’ names in the way we think about them, just as we do when it comes to “rats”.

Volunteer shooters keeping up with the feral cats

Admin Aridrecovery - Friday, June 16, 2017


It’s a great year out here for native wildlife… but also a great year for feral cats. Many bouts of rain over the last 18 months have seen the desert flush with growth. The rodents are booming and so are the feral cats.


Photo: Hugh McGregor


We’re fortunate to have a great team of volunteer shooters to help with this problem, and can announce that we’ve removed a record number of feral cats in the last 6 months – at just over 200.



Total numbers of cats and foxes killed in 6-month periods in the Roxby Downs region since 1985.


This graph shows all of the cats and foxes removed that we’ve recorded in the vicinity of Arid Recovery going back as far as 1985. There’s actually more activity in the region than this dataset shows because others (neighbours etc.) have been getting stuck into feral control and we don’t have all those records.

To see what feral cats and foxes have been eating, we have dissected as many as possible of the 203 removed this year (130 of them). It is always confronting seeing the sheer number of native animals they kill. We’ve found a total of 271 native animals in their stomachs, including 45 native mice, 216 reptiles and 10 birds. One small cat had 9 threatened Plains Mice in its belly.


8 Hopping Mice all found in the stomach of a single feral cat this year.


Despite removing so many cats we are finding that they are replaced fairly quickly. Even after some weeks where we’ve removed 20 or 30, we still see many the following week. While we’re not stemming the flow completely, feral cat numbers are lower than they would otherwise have been. If it wasn’t for the removal of these 200 cats, wildlife would be in worse shape. The stomach contents analysis shows that cats eat an average of 5 animals a night, almost all of them native. Extrapolating, by removing 200 cats we have saved the lives of 370,475 native animals just in the next 12 months.

If conditions dry out in the next few months we expect to see a downturn in the number of feral cats reinvading our control zone.


Field and Maintenance Officer John Crompton with a particularly large feral cat removed from around the reserve.

 

If you are interested in being part of this effort, please contact admin@aridrecovery.org.au and we’ll walk you through the approvals process.

Also, if you know someone who is controlling cats in our area let them know that we’d appreciate the carcasses to dissect and learn from them.



How many bettongs?

Admin Aridrecovery - Thursday, June 15, 2017
This May we did a big bettong trap up to estimate the population size for Red Lake and the Main Exclosure. We worked in four teams of 15 people (12 of them volunteers) trapping bettongs flat out for 8 nights straight (with some bonus bilby chasing thrown in for PhD student Aly Ross's project).

Kristi Lee was one of our volunteers and made this video with Katherine Moseby. Have a watch!



We caught 216 bettongs in Red Lake, showing that the population is still increasing despite coexisting with a small number of feral cats. In the Main Exclosure we caught 402 bettongs, a very high success rate: 72% of traps caught a bettong. We also caught 16 Western Barred Bandicoots, 5 Greater Bilbies and one Stick-nest Rat.





Mel Jensen returned to help with the trapping and lead a team. She previously did her Honours on Western Barred Bandicoots at Arid Recovery and was delighted to trap some bonus bandicoots. Photo by Kath Tuft




A Western Barred Bandicoot in a trap. It was a delight to catch several bandicoots which are now abundant enough within the reserve to be caught regularly in cage traps. Photo by volunteer Samantha Kirby




A subadult bettong snuggles up in a fleece bag. The mornings were cold for both us and the bettongs so we all rugged up - us in our woolies and the bettongs with cosy double bags over each trap. Photo by Kath Tuft




Volunteer Kim Thomas cuddles a bettong joey that was thrown out of the pouch by its mother. Bettongs are notoriously bad mothers and can eject their young when stressed. We spent some time with this joey and others tucking them back into their mothers' pouches and gently sealing them with light tape. This stops the mother from ejecting the young again when she is released down her burrow, where she'll easily pull the tape off later in the safety of the warren. Photo by Kim Solly


Thanks to all our excellent volunteers for your help!


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Arid recovery is a conservation initiative supported by:
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