Bettongs behaving...badly?

Admin Aridrecovery - Thursday, February 04, 2016

As I mentioned in my last post, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Arid Recovery (AR) have teamed together to explore and potentially improve anti-predator responses in threatened species on the Reserve. Reintroductions of these native species often fail due to a lack of effective anti-predator responses (Moseby et al. 2011). The anti-predator responses of threatened species may improve by exposing them to low predation pressure (four cats and two Western Quolls), allowing for successful reintroductions outside the AR Reserve.

 

Do you think Sepia (Western Quoll) could pass as a terrifying predator? Credit: Kimberley Solly


As well as taxidermy cats (as above), there are FOUR feral cats scaring bettongs in RLX. Credit: Lisa Steindler

I’ve been involved with many facets of this project during my time at AR. One of my favourite parts is determining approach distances for collared bettongs, which helps establish how aware bettongs are of potential predators and indicates something about an individual’s behavior. The concept is simple. Imagine you’re a bettong who’s never been exposed to a feral cat before. A naive bettong wouldn’t be aware of a predator approaching and therefore would be an easy target. However, if you had been exposed to cats and perhaps even survived an attack by one you would be more wary and harder to approach. This would improve your anti-predator response, making you harder to eat and increasing your chances of reproductive success. We want to know if this process is happening. Therefore we preformed approach distance experiments on bettongs in expansions without predators and compared them to the approach distances of bettongs in Red Lake and the Northern where there are predators.

 

Determining a bettong’s approach distance requires a strong head torch and stellar radio tracking skills. Bettongs are nocturnal so can only be approached at night. A normal experiment goes as follows. One, drive to a bettong warren where you know a collared bettong lives, attempting to avoid lizards, hopping mice, and other bettongs and bilbies on the road. Two, get your tracking gear out, turn the gain all the way up on the receiver and flip the yagi antenna vertically, listening for a telltale beep that will indicate that the collared individual you’re tracking is nearby. Three, if you’re close enough flip the yagi horizontally and turn the gain down. This is when the fun begins.

 

I watched Bec’s headlamp bob in the distance, blinking like a distant lighthouse when she walked up and over a sand dune. “Ok channel 17, you’re mine.” I headed straight towards the loudest blip I could hear from the receiver. As I walked I swiveled the yagi from left to right correcting my path to always head towards the loudest beep. That meant I was heading towards the collared animal. I struggled up and over a sand dune, trying not to trip on acacia bushes or fall into a bone-dry mulga tree. As I came over the crest of the dune the beep got even louder, becoming distorted. I turned the gain down and kept moving forward.

 

As you get closer and closer to the individual it’s important to be constantly adjusting the gain and your direction. You can make more sensitive directional corrections with a low gain, but turn it down too far and you won’t be able to hear the collar anymore.

 

I heard a farting noise and saw a bettong sprint out from under a saltbush. I had reached the gibber plain in between two dunes. I noticed that bettong didn’t have a collar, but based on the loudness of the beep I knew I must have been getting close. After about 10 meters I looked slightly to my left and saw a pair of shining eyes crouching under a bluebush. “Gotcha,” I muttered under my breath. This bettong did have a collar. He looked at me, slowly hopped out from under the bush and then took off towards my left. The beep became softer as he ran off, so I knew he was the collared individual I had been tracking. I paced out 12 meters from my position to the bush I initially saw him under. My first bettong approach distance, done!

 

Gotcha! This bettong was trapped and measured but didn't want to leave the bag. Credit: Evan Griffith

You read that right, bettongs fart. And no we’re not talking about flatulence. It’s actually their alarm call, however, it can be very handy to scientists working in the outback. When in doubt, blame it on the bettongs! Occasionally, you’ll be tracking a bettong and the beep will get louder and louder and then fade. This usually indicates the animal is running away from you before you get close enough to see it. The first couple times this happens we follow it again, but after the third time we stop. If you kept going you might walk across the entire Reserve and never see the collared individual! Not seeing the bettong after three approaches is a very interesting result that indicates that they may have a heightened awareness of potential threats.

 

Even though approach distance experiments can run late into the night I enjoyed every session. Since most outback animals are nocturnal you really can’t get a feel for just how much life there is on the Reserve until you go out at night. From nightjars to geckos, western brown snakes to the stick-nest rats, biblies and bettongs, it is never quiet. Standing on top of a dune, bathed in moonlight and watching the reflection of hundreds of eyes is an experience that should not be missed. 


Written by Evan Griffith, ARC and Arid Recovery intern


Bon Bon Bonanza

Admin Aridrecovery - Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Roxby Downs Green Army works mostly in partnership with the Arid Recovery Reserve, but under the South Australian Rangelands Alliance shared between Arid Recovery and Bush Heritage, the opportunity came along in early December for the Green Army to undertake a placement at Bon Bon Reserve. Bon Bon Reserve, which is 150 km west of Roxby Downs (on the Stuart Highway), is a de-stocked sheep property (over 2000 km2 in size) acquired by Bush Heritage in 2008, and is run by managers Mike Chuk and Julia Harris as a protected area, wildlife corridor and refuge.

The Green Army team studied under and assisted Mike and Julia with a number of tasks. This included maintenance on the original boundary fence with neighbouring station Mount Vivian. Restoring this historic fence was simple but labour intensive. The team assisted Mike and Julia to drive 6ft star droppers alongside the original mulga fence posts to straighten and provide extra stability. The team twitched the original and new posts together with fencing wire to ensure the two didn’t become separated over time.


Using our strength to straighten the property boundary fence.

Time was also spent upgrading the existing fire breaks and access tracks. This provides a navigable route (which is smooth and obstruction free) for fire appliances to access parts of the Reserve from the Stuart Highway. Over time, woody plant species such as Acacia and Senna have established on the track, and required removal by hand and in some cases chemical treatment to prevent re-sprouting.

Grading this track involved a contraption built from old railway line and four truck tyres. The contraption was chained to the back of a tractor and pulled along the dirt track. The railway line would flatten and compact the surface and the tyres would catch and push any debris that may be left on the road such as sticks and rocks. The team assisted by helping manoeuvre and attach the bulky grading device around difficult obstacles and on and off the back of a flat-bed ute for transportation.


Loading the tyres and the railway line for transportation was a creative process that required the use of the tractor to prevent serious strain or injury.


Shovelling a sand bund to allow access by the grading device.

We also spent time locating and managing rabbit warrens in an area of the Reserve, where priority control was identified. The Managers have a responsibility to monitor and control both plant and animal pest species. Smaller warren entrances were simply filled in, while larger entrances were treated chemically. On inspection of some previously recorded warrens in hard calcrete country near the edge of a small salt lake, some of the warrens seemed to be getting larger and there were obvious new tracks and scats present. Southern hairy-nosed wombats had moved in and were increasing in activity, further extending their known range on the Reserve, which thrilled everyone involved.


Preparing a rabbit warren for treatment.

An active wombat burrow.

We participated in a range of other tasks including seed collection, visiting historic photo points to see how some areas had changed over time, and assisting University students who were conducting biological surveys using pit fall trap lines in the south of the Reserve.


An opportunity to brush up on plant ID skills.

Working on Bon Bon Reserve was a great opportunity for the Green Army team, and Mike and Julia were grateful for the assistance, achieving goals that would have been nearly impossible without a little help. We thank them for their hospitality and look forward to visiting again someday.

Do you want to gain field experience across a variety of activities? The next Green Army project starts in March. Anyone who is interested can contact B0210002202G@cva.org.au or visit www.conservationvolunteers.com.au/greenarmy.


Written by Tegan Elms, Green Army participant

Quoll-ity time at Arid Recovery

Admin Aridrecovery - Friday, January 15, 2016

My name is Evan Griffith. I recently graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in biology. I’ve been at Arid Recovery (AR) for seven weeks now, working as a research assistant with Dr. Rebecca West (Bec), a research officer for the University of New South Wales, who is one of AR’s research partners. Since arriving in the outback I’ve trapped bettongs, bilbies, and bandicoots, helped dig Beethoven, one of the reserve cats, out of a warren, radio tracked stick-nest rats, counted carrots at “ratstaurants,” determined approach distances of collared bettongs, scored bettong behavior videos, dragged and helped count track transects, got three flat tires on three different vehicles in one day, and observed all kinds of wildlife. Some personal highlights and favourites include seeing a bearded dragon, gibber dragon, western brown snake, sand goanna, shingleback (sleepy) lizard and of course the big four, greater bilby, burrowing bettong, greater stick-nest rat, and western barred bandicoot. Ian, a tree dtella, lives in our kitchen and has provided hours of entertainment. I find spinifex hopping mice adorable and have a slightly strange obsession with their fluffy tails. In addition, the variety and density of bird life has been a constant delight. I enjoy watching grey and pink galahs gather in the mulga trees outside my room, listening to large flocks of white-browed babblers caw at each other as they swoop between green acacia bushes on sunset red sand dunes, and observing wedge-tailed eagles float on thermals high above the landscape. However, if there is one species that has left its mark on me it has to be the Western Quoll. There are two quolls at the Reserve, Sepia and Koombana, and I have had the privilege of meeting them both.

Sepia up close. Credit: Evan Griffith

Reintroducing endangered mammals to the Australian outback is a challenging endeavor. Many reintroduction initiatives fall short due to predation by feral cats and red foxes, caused by a lack of effective anti-predator responses in native mammals (Johnson and Issac 2009; Moseby et al. 2011). Current research projects at AR are attempting to determine whether prey naivety can be reduced in threatened species by exposing native mammals to low predation pressure (look for more on this in my next blog post about bettong behavior). The idea is that if native prey naivety can be reduced reintroductions outside the reserve have a better chance for success. As part of this endeavor, Sepia and Koombana, two female Western Quolls have been brought onto the Reserve. Both quolls have been trapped regularly for health checkups and to examine their scat. Looking at quoll scat, as incredibly exciting as it sounds, allows us to determine what the quolls are eating, thereby demonstrating their impact on the native mammal populations in the Reserve. Tracking down the quolls in order to trap them isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

When I first arrived at AR I was informed we have one good quoll and one naughty quoll. Sepia is relatively easy to find in the southeastern part of the Northern Expansion (Northern). In contrast, Koombana is never in the same place. She could be in the Northern or the Second Expansion (Second). Seeing Sepia up close for the first time was an incredible experience. Quolls are beautiful, with their spotted coat, bright shining eyes and long pointed nose. Part of the appeal of quolls for me is that they’re like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They’re fierce predators, but are incredibly calm when being handled. They have sharp digging claws and a long tail. Their spots are specific to individuals and can be used to identify them. There is something intangibly attractive about them, and as soon as I saw Sepia I was completely smitten.


Evan releasing Sepia into her burrow. Credit: Bec West

Finding Koombana so that we could trap her became an intensive quest. I started out on the razor (polaris sand buggy) at 7 am and headed to the Northern where she had been seen most recently. The radio collars on the quolls have a range of between 200 to 700 meters, depending on the height of the sand dune you’re standing on and how windy it is. In order to scan the entire area I drove to the eastern border fence, chose a dune and headed west along the crest. I stopped about every 500 meters and listened for Koombana with the receiver tuned to her specific frequency. As soon as I got to the western border I turned around, chose another sand dune and headed east. After five hours with no sign of Koombana I was getting pretty hot and sticky and ready for lunch. Bec suggested that I head over to the Second since I wasn’t having any luck in the Northern. I again started slowly travelling along seemingly endless sand dunes, listening for any slight beep that would alert me to Koombana’s presence. After another two hours I finally heard something! I tracked Koombana down to a burrow about 1.5 km south of the northern border, basically in the middle of nowhere, which is classic Koombana. Bec came and helped me put a burrow trap in and two mornings later we got her! I was so excited to see another quoll and Koombana didn’t disappoint. She’s slightly larger than Sepia, but just as beautiful.


Koombana being released into one of her many burrows. Credit: Bec West

Spending eight hours on the razor in 38 ˚C was a pretty long day, but it was totally worth it to be around these incredible creatures. Recently, I got the chance to see both quolls again when we trapped them on the same day, which has never happened before! As my time at AR comes to an end I’m grateful for the opportunity to see quolls, bettongs, bilbies, and all of the native mammals of Australia. Their uniqueness and special qualities can’t be overstated. The current collaboration between UNSW and AR as well as other reintroduction efforts will hopefully contribute to the spread of these animals across their former habitat, allowing for more Australians to experience what I felt when meeting Koombana and Sepia for the first time.

Written by Evan Griffith, ARC Project intern at Arid Recovery

Bilby Tails Part II: Trials, Tribulations, Traps and Transmitters

Admin Aridrecovery - Friday, November 20, 2015

If you are a regular visitor of the Arid Recovery blog, you might have read a bit about the ‘bilby business’ that has been happening at the Reserve over the last few months. With the latest experiments on our resident transmitter-equipped bilbies wrapping up at the beginning of November, the final task of retrieving the transmitters has been on the agenda of many of the staff, students and volunteers at Arid Recovery.

For UNSW PhD student Lisa Steindler, removing the remaining tail transmitters from the last 10 of her caught Greater Bilbies (Macrotis lagotis) is just as important as putting them on. Not only are tail transmitters expensive pieces of equipment (retailing at over $200 each), they can be turned off and reused for further research at a later date. Re-catching bilbies can also provide some interesting data on how their weight and body condition has changed over time.

You may be asking “Shouldn’t it be easy to re-catch a bilby, especially if you can track where it is?” Prior to undertaking this task, I would have replied “Sure, we’ll just put a trap in the bilby’s burrow entrance, he’ll waltz on in and gladly hand over his transmitter!” After (finally) retrieving the last transmitter earlier this week, I can safely say that recapturing bilbies is not as easy as one may think. Below I have provided some short explanations of the possible scenarios that I came across during our time recapturing 10 bilbies.


Scenario 1: The tail transmitter falls off.

Transmitters recovered from bilbies: 5 (Romeo, Boomer, Bob, Betsy and Bruno)

Difficulty of retrieval: Varies from pleasantly easy when the bilby conveniently sheds the transmitter above ground on a sand dune (see figure 1), to back-breakingly difficult when it is lost metres down a burrow (see figure 2).


Figure 1: A tail transmitter left on a sand dune by Romeo. The most difficult part of retrieving this transmitter was bending down and picking it up. Credit: Lisa Steindler


Figure 2: Finding a transmitter in a burrow involves 3 steps. 1) Using the radio tracker, find the strongest signal emitting from the ground. 2) Dig, dig and dig some more. 3) Repeat as necessary until the transmitter is found. This process can take as little as 5 minutes or as long as 5 hours. Credit: Lisa Steindler


Scenario 2: The bilby is caught using a trap.

Transmitters recovered from bilbies: 4 (Bellamy, Brian, Bolt, Bullet and Bruce)

Difficulty of retrieval: Depends. The initial set-up of a pen trap can be labour intensive (figure 3), but if a bilby goes into one of the set traps on the first night, all that hard work pays off. On the other hand, trying to catch a bilby hiding in a bettong warren can prove difficult when the only animals you catch for 2 nights are Burrowing Bettongs (Bettongia leuser) and a goanna (Varanus gouldii). Once the bilby’s neighbours have been moved, trapping can be successfully achieved (see figure 4).


Figure 3:  A completed pen trap. Constructing a pen trap involves identifying the number of entrances in the warren, building a fence, complete with footnetting around said warren and wiring traps around and inside the fence. Thankfully, with the help of the Green Army, many hands make light work! Credit: Lisa Steindler


Figure 4: When a pen trap is set up around a warren, it is common to trap a neighbour or two instead of the target bilby. In this case, a Sand Goanna is being coaxed out of a trap by Green Army member Jesse. Credit: Adrian Friedel


Scenario 3: Volunteers are led along a 3-week chase by Bill, a cunning escape artist bilby.

Transmitters recovered from bilbies: 1 (Bill)

Difficulty of retrieval: I wouldn’t recommend this scenario to anyone. After 5 days of pen trapping (figure 5), over a week of rain delays, a further 3 days of failed burrow trapping (figure 6) and 1 mornings worth of digging, Bill was finally re-caught the same way he was caught (figure 7). In a net.


Figure 5: Some may think that 6 traps for one bilby might be too much. In this case, it proved to be not enough, with Bill the bilby escaping under the fence from this pen. Credit: Lisa Steindler


Figure 6: Trying a different tact. After residing in a few single-entrance burrows, we thought Bill might fall for a well-baited trap. As you can see, we were wrong. He burrowed straight under instead. Photo Credit: Sam Fischer


Figure 7: Success! After escaping a pen trap, and burrowing around several burrow traps, Bill was caught by digging behind his burrow, flushing him out and into a net. Credit: Bec West


Now, as the last removed tail transmitter is turned off, I’ve had a moment to reflect on the past few weeks. Having the opportunity to work with (arguably) one of Australia’s most iconic endangered animals has been one of the many highlights during my time volunteering with Arid Recovery. The excitement of seeing those distinctive big ears, and the satisfaction of removing the transmitter after weeks of collecting data far outweighs the many early starts, hours behind the shovel, and patience-testing moments. 


Written by Sam Fischer, Arid Recovery Volunteer and Roxby Downs Green Army Member.

Green Army ‘fights’ for Arid Recovery values

Kimberley Solly - Friday, November 13, 2015

“It’s going to be a hotter-than-average summer”. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that sentiment over the last few months, and judging by the conditions of last few weeks (and the swathes of meteorological and oceanographic data relating to El Nino) it’s a fact that’s hard to dispute.  For a Project like the Arid Recovery Reserve, this means the heat reflecting off those polished red rocks, and the hot sand that pours into your boots on the ascent of every dune, will be harder to bear than ever.  But I’m not deterred.  The necessity for vigilance regarding the maintenance and welfare of the Reserve’s infrastructure, and its many furry inhabitants is something that doesn’t go away just because it’s hotter than usual.  A team of motivated and dedicated ‘warriors’ is required, and that is something I will be proud to contribute this summer in my role as Supervisor for the Roxby Downs Green Army Project.


Working hard to maintain the integrity of our fence. Photo credit: Adrian Friedel

The Green Army is an Australian Government initiative open to young people aged 17-24, who are looking to develop skills, undertake training and gain experience in the delivery of conservation projects.  Through the Green Army programme, participants enhance their opportunities for careers and further training in conservation. The Roxby Downs Green Army Project works in partnership with the Arid Recovery Reserve to achieve goals relating to species conservation in the arid zone. My team is only small (three people) but we work diligently to complete a range of objectives including fence maintenance, pest and weed surveys and vegetation monitoring.

The values of the Arid Recovery Reserve stand for a lot of things. Among them is the demonstration that a lot of hard-work and dedication towards a particular cause can eventually pay off.  I like to think that my team is following in the footsteps of Reserve ‘pioneers’, who have dedicated much time and energy in building and maintaining this unique facility. One of the major drivers in achieving this is ‘passion’, and ‘passion’ is something I find reflected in all of my team members, whether it be a desire to learn more about local flora and fauna or just the willingness to work hard on a task for the satisfaction of seeing a result take effect.  Each set of eyes on the Reserve improves the ability to detect unusual diggings or evidence of species that may (or may not) supposed to be there, and contributes towards the ever-expanding record of opportunistic sightings and phenomena.

The opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the Reserve’s furry (and sometimes scaly) critters is a fantastic reward and definitely something my team looks forward to. When a visiting researcher sticks their hand up looking for assistance, we are quick to jump at the opportunity.  Constructing little pens to trap burrowing animals is a job that requires multiple sets of eventually blistered and calloused hands, but the 5am starts and the hordes of flies are soon forgotten when given the opportunity to handle and process a captured bettong or a bilby. We are very lucky.



Green Army participants setting up a pen trap to catch a Bilby and then processing their Bilby bounty! Photo credit: Adrian Friedel

I want my team members to come away from this Project, at the end of February, seeing this unique environment through different eyes, and knowing that they have contributed towards important conservation goals.  We are currently looking for an additional team member for the summer and the next Green Army Project begins in February (and will run for around 22 weeks). Anyone who is interested or has any questions is invited to contact me by emailing me at greenarmy@aridrecovery.org.au.


Written by Adrian Friedel, Supervisor for the Roxby Downs Green Army Project.

Scaredy-cat

Kimberley Solly - Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Lisa Steindler is not like many other PhD students. Not many PhD students can say that they travel over 1,820 km from Sydney to be up close and personal with the Australian outback, but also a mammal that has faced great challenges. Like so many other Australian mammals, the Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis) has faced rapid population decline and severe range contraction associated with predation by cats and foxes. Believe it or not, but the Greater Bilby is actually the lucky one. Lucky in that the other species of bilby, the Lesser Bilby along with 29 other mammal species have gone extinct since European settlement around 250 years ago.


Lisa Steindler and volunteers Liz, Sam, and Sam. Credit: Lisa Steindler

Lisa’s research is part of a much larger project occurring at Arid Recovery, which is the Australian Research Council Linkage project with the University of NSW that we’ve mentioned herehere and here. Titled ‘Tackling prey naïveté’, the research project is investigating the reasons for the extinction of our threatened species and why their re-introductions fail. It is believed that these failures may be because our threatened species might not have the correct anti-predator responses to introduced predators. While fenced reserves are providing much needed reprieve from cats and foxes, this protection may actually be hindering the restoration of threatened species in the long run. Isolation from predators may lead to more naïve populations that are unable to cope with predators (Blumstein 2006).

Beauty and naivety are a dangerous combination. We already know that the bilby is beautiful; Lisa’s task is to determine the degree of naïveté of the Greater Bilby. Lisa is investigating different behavioural characteristics of the bilby such as their vigilance behaviour when foraging (how often they look up to check for danger) and how they respond to the smell and sight of predators.

Thankfully Lisa is well versed in life in the semi-arid and arid zone, with stints as an intern, volunteer, and employee across reserves/sanctuaries such as Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary and Newhaven Sanctuary to name a few. While at Arid Recovery, Lisa has undertaken a number of different experiments, which all require a variety of skills. This year’s research kicked off with catching 30 bilbies across the Main expansion, First expansion and Red Lake expansion and fitting them with radio-transmitters attached to their tails. The ARC project and Arid Recovery intern Ruth Shepherd wrote an excellent summary on how to catch a bilby here.


Volunteers processing a Greater Bilby. Credit: Lisa Steindler

We know that predators deposit urine and faeces throughout their home range, so Lisa is mimicking this to see how bilbies respond. Lisa tracks each bilby to their burrow (using their radiotransmitter) and then places scat from a cat, dog, rabbit or nothing (control) outside their burrow. Lisa has had to ask the Roxby Downs and Port Augusta locals for lots of cat and dog scats and has had help in collecting rabbit scats from outside the dunes by a whole heap of dedicated volunteers! The burrow entrance is then filmed using infrared motion detector cameras to see how the bilby responds when it emerges from its burrow.


Volunteer Rob collecting rabbit scats for experiments. Credit: Lisa Steindler

In a different set of experiments Lisa has also been testing whether bilbies recognise a cat as a predator by placing a taxidermy model of a cat, rabbit or bucket (control) outside their burrows. If the bilbies recognise these odours or models as a predator threat they should show fear which can be measured by how vigilant they are. When Lisa gets back to Sydney she will watch the videos and score how long each bilby spends relaxed or vigilant and compare this to the scat or model that was outside their burrow.



Taxidermy cats and rabbits placed outside burrows were filmed to assess bilby vigilance. Credit: Lisa Steindler  

Lisa has been flat out for three months and is deserving of a big rest, in between her casual role as an Australian fauna keeper at Taronga Zoo. Lisa's final task was to retrieve the radio-transmitters by using burrow and pen traps to re-trap bilbies and she leaves us with some wise words:

“If you want to work with digging animals, you’re going to have to learn to like digging holes”



Retrieving radio-transmitters is no easy feat! Credit: Lisa Steindler


Written by Kimberley Solly, Scientific and Education Officer and Rebecca West, Research Officer ARC Linkage Project

Keep your eyes peeled for buffel grass

Kimberley Solly - Thursday, October 22, 2015


The Buffel Busters are a volunteer group that have worked tirelessly over the past three years to eradicate buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) from the Roxby Downs region. Buffel grass is the most invasive weed that arid Australia has experienced. It grows quickly to form a dense monoculture, which is far more fire-loving and flammable than native plant species in the arid zone. Buffel grass can outcompete all native understorey plants and invasion of an ecosystem can significantly increase the frequency and intensity of fires, which can eliminate fire sensitive plants such as the long-lived Western Myall, Mulga and native pine trees which you see around Roxby downs. The long term efforts of Buffel Buster volunteers such as Reece Pedler means that the Roxby region has a fighting chance to nip buffel grass in the bud.

 

“We’re trying to protect our long-lived trees, and other plants and animals that are vulnerable to intense fires” said Reece Pedler.

 

We’ve talked about buffel grass before on the Arid Recovery blog (here and here), but we haven’t focussed on what you can do at home to identify buffel grass and make sure you’re not harbouring this declared weed in your garden. We've made a handy poster to help you identify buffel grass at home! Check it out now. 

Buffel grass has two key defining features which separate it from other grass species.

 

First defining feature: Remove an individual seed from the fluffy seed head. If the seed has 9 or more bristles coming from the base of the seed, it is buffel grass.

 


Many bristles come from the base of the individual seed. Credit: Cara Edwards



Second defining feature: After seeds are removed from the stem the stem is rough and wiggly.




The stem is rough and wiggly once seeds are removed. Credit: Kimberley Solly


Other features important for identifying buffel grass include one seed head per stem and the fluffy purple-straw coloured seed head. Some grass species which may be confused with buffel grass do not have the rough and wiggly stem and have less bristles that usually come from the middle or top of the seed burr.


It is particularly important to look out for buffel grass after rain events. Small infestations can be removed by digging out plants, ensuring the deep, tough root system is removed. If you would like more information or would like to join the Buffel Busters on their next working bee please contact Arid Recovery on (08) 8671 2402 or like us on Facebook!


Written By Kimberley Solly, Scientific and Education Officer

Quoll scat-venger hunts!

Kimberley Solly - Monday, October 12, 2015

I’m sure you’ve all been waiting in anticipation for our next blog after the introduction of our newest members of the Arid Recovery family, two female Western Quolls called Sepia and Koombana. We left you hanging, pondering what it is that Sepia and Koombana have been eating.

In the Flinders Ranges quolls are preying on adult rabbits and sheltering in their warrens, however in the feral free Northern Expansion at Arid Recovery, there aren’t any rabbits to feed on. While Koombana and Sepia are living in bettong warrens, it is not yet known if they are eating Burrowing Bettongs, or other native mammals. Koombana and Sepia’s dietary composition is being monitored by collecting and analysing their scats. Just two scats have been found while on scat scavenger hunts surrounding Koombana and Sepia’s nesting sites, so The ARC’s Project Officer Bec West has given the girls a helping hand by creating a public toilet for them to use. Quoll scats donated by the Flinders Ranges population are placed on toothpicks to replicate a latrine, which would be used by quolls in the wild. One of the quolls visited the latrine, had a scout around, but did not leave us a scat treasure!

Quolls are carnivorous marsupials- can you see mammal fur in this scat?

Remote cameras captured one of the inquisitive quolls investigating the human-made latrine site. Western Quoll scats (collected from the Flinders Ranges) are mounted on toothpicks along the top of the log. Credit: Bec West


Discovering quoll scats across the 30 km2 fenced expansion is proving to be much like finding a needle in a haystack. Although named after shipwrecks like the other females released into the Flinders Ranges, Koombana is proving herself to be an exceptional explorer for which the male quolls are named after. Females in the Flinders Ranges have an average home range size of 4 km2 and should have core home ranges with very little overlap with other females. Elsewhere, males released into Francois Peron National Park in Shark Bay moved 30-40 km, some moved more than 100 km from the release site. Bec West had to resort to using a plane to radio-track the pair of quolls from the air in the first few weeks after release as their high mobility and lack of high points on the sand dunes made it very difficult to keep up with them on foot. 


Shelter locations for each of the female quolls since release on 06/05/15. Red point displays the first location (release pen) for each quoll and the dotted line indicates locations in date order from that point until 25/08/15. Credit: Bec West

Finding the quolls is difficult enough, so you can imagine trying to find their scats is even harder. Koombana and Sepia were originally fitted with a VHF radio transmitting collar, which is commonly used to radio track the quolls to den sites during the day. We search high and low around these den sites, but still have only found two scats! Western Quolls move swiftly along the ground with their greatest activity through the night. Radio tracking the quolls at night with just a VHF collar is near impossible, but knowing the whereabouts of Koombana and Sepia between their daylight den sites would be of great benefit. Sepia’s collar has been swapped to a VHF collar with GPS so that fixed coordinates of her position at 9 pm, 12 am and 3 am can be downloaded. After two weeks the collar will be swapped to Koombana so that we can piece together a pattern of nocturnal foraging activity which can be used to narrow our scat search area! 

Written by Kimberley Solly, Scientific and Education Officer


Spot our newest members of the Arid Recovery family

Kimberley Solly - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Under the darkness of the night on May 6th two female Western Quolls (Dasyurus geoffroii) were released into the Arid Recovery Reserve. Koombana and Sepia (named after WA shipwrecks) were wild caught from Menjimup and Julimar respectively in Western Australia and were among 37 other quolls who travelled to the Flinders Ranges, where quolls are currently being re-introduced. They had already travelled a lengthy journey from Western Australia including a 9 hour flight to Wilpena Pound and a 4.5 hour drive to Roxby Downs. These nocturnal carnivores were released at night to minimise stress levels and to maximise the period available to familiarise themselves with their new home.


Sepia captured outside her burrow in the release pen on night 3. Credit: Bec West

The Western Quoll or chuditch as it’s known in Western Australia is one of four extant species of quoll found in Australia. There are also two other living quoll species found in Papua New Guinea! Some refer to quolls as native cats, as they are medium sized carnivores with males of the Western Quoll species weighing up to 1.3 kg, while females weigh up to 900 g. Quolls have a distinctive coat which is rusty-brown to grey colour with the Western Quoll having up to 60 whitish spots along their body, but none on their tail.


Koombana and Sepia are being used as native in situ predators as part of the current Australian Research Council Linkage project with the University of NSW to see if they can improve the anti-predator responses in our re-introduced mammals (Burrowing Bettong, Greater Stick-nest Rat, Western Barred Bandicoot and Greater Bilby). Three of the four re-introduced species at the Arid Recovery Reserve were extinct on mainland Australia and the primary reason for their demise and difficulty re-introducing them outside of fenced reserves is that they have an inability to mount effective anti-predator responses (Moseby et al. 2011). The ARC project aims to improve the survival of native mammal species by exploring prey naivety to introduced predators (cat) and trialing native predators (quolls) as a means of improving anti-predator responses.

Whilst Arid Recovery isn’t looking to re-introduce Western Quolls just yet, Koombana and Sepia are pioneers of a potential future re-introduction. A long term goal of Arid Recovery has been to re-introduce a native predator to moderate herbivore populations and reflect a natural ecosystem. While we have reptile and bird predators, we are yet to return any mammalian predators to the Reserve. The ARC Project Officer Bec West will be closely monitoring Koombana and Sepia for the first 10 months, whereupon a review of the trial will decide whether the quolls are having a detrimental impact on the threatened species within the Reserve. If they are found to be having a negative impact on populations they will be relocated to the Flinders Ranges with the rest of the newly formed quoll population, if not they will be left in situ to form part of a longer term study at the Arid Recovery Reserve.


Sepia having a health check-up! Credit: Kaarissa Harring-Harris

To survive quolls require about 104-140 g of food per day, feeding primarily on invertebrates and opportunistically on mammals, birds, and reptiles (Gaikhorst 2008; Glen et al 2010; Orell and Morris 1994). Historically Western Quolls would have likely been important predators in the arid zone, controlling populations of invertebrate and vertebrate prey species. Trialing the release of quolls into Arid Recovery is the beginning point for detecting potential impacts that may result from returning a native predator to the ecosystem.

Koombana and Sepia have settled nicely into the Reserve, stay tuned to find out how we know what the quolls are eating! 


Written By: Kimberley Solly, Scientific and Education Officer


References:

Gaikhirst, G. (2008). Chuditch Animal Management Guidelines Perth Zoo. Perth.

Glen, A.S., Wayne, A., Maxwell, M. and Cruz, J. (2010). Comparative diets of the chuditch, a threatened marsupial carnivore, in the northern and southern jarrah forests, Western Australia. Journal of Zoology 282, 276-283.

Moseby, K.E., Read, J.L., Paton, D.C., Copley, P., Hill, B.M. and Crisp, H.M. (2011) Predation determines the outcome of ten reintroduction attempts in arid South Australia. Biological Conservation DOI information: 10.1016/j.biocon.2011.08.003, 3-SEP-2011

Orell P. and Morris K. (1994). Western Australian Wildlife Management Program No. 13.  Chuditch Recovery Plan 1992-2000 Western Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management. Wanneroo.


Bilby Tails: how to catch a bilby (Macrotis lagotis)

Admin Aridrecovery - Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The second Sunday in September is dedicated to National Bilby Day, so what better reason to tell you of our work on the Greater Bilby in the Arid Recovery Reserve. And it just so happens that last week was a busy week on the reserve fitting radio transmitters to bilby tails as part of a project looking at predator awareness in the Greater Bilby, which is being carried out by Lisa Steindler (a PhD student from UNSW as part of our ARC Project). By fitting a transmitter the bilby’s location can be found, so long as you are in a kilometre range.  Knowing where the bilbies are, in particular their burrow, is very useful for Lisa when it comes to setting up her experiments outside the bilby’s home.


However, before a bilby can be radio tracked a transmitter needs to be attached, but only once the animal has been caught -some would say this is the fun part! Here’s also where a team of volunteers comes in handy. Catching a bilby in a cage trap is quite unlikely, instead fast pairs of legs are much more effective. But why does this need a team I hear you ask? Well bilbies come out at night, therefore a person with a powerful torch, called the spotlighter, is important. It is also handy to have a driver to allow a larger area to be searched. Also, when the spotlighter sees a bilby, being able to drive alongside the running animal allows some distance to be gained on the bilby, increasing the likelihood of a catch. When the car stops you need a runner (the final member of the team) to jump out of the car and run after the bilby. Here’s where a fast runner is essential! Believe me, bilbies are surprisingly fast. But they also have the ability to rapidly zig zag from side to side, confusing the best of runners. Therefore to keep track of the bilby two good runners are often better than one! After successfully catching the bilby (using a net or by hand) the animal is then placed into a dark, fleecy bag to keep it calm. All be it fun remember we were catching bilbies for an important reason, so please do not attempt to try this at home.


Unlike the other animals on the Reserve that have radio collars, bilbies have transmitters that are fixed to the base of their tail using Elastoplast. Previous studies have found that bilbies can often get their feet stuck in collars, so tail transmitters are much safer. However, attaching the transmitters directly to the tail fur of the bilbies is not effective -sand is more likely to get stuck in the Elastoplast  and cause the transmitter to fall off, so the transmitters must be taped to the skin…This is when hairdresser Lisa comes into action (see the photos below)!


The skilled art of fitting a transmitter to a Greater Bilby's tail! Credit: Ruth Shepherd

After the bilby’s transmitter has been attached other important data such as the animal’s body condition is taken by feeling how much fat the bilby has on the rump area. Some of the fur is also collected to be sent away for analysis for cortisol levels (a measure of stress). This allows Lisa to compare stress levels between bilbies living in the expansion with the cats, and the expansion with no predators.

The final piece of data collected is behavioural data which is done when the animal is released in the place where it was caught. Animals differ in how bold or shy they are, and having one of these qualities may make them better at surviving predation (the ARC project is researching this for bettongs, bilbies and stick-nest rats on the Reserve). Bilby boldness is measured by how long it takes, and how much encouragement it takes (by giving the bilby gentle nudges every 3 seconds), before the bilby leaves the bag.

All of the radio tagged bilbies are monitored by Lisa to see their usual pattern of burrow use and behaviour and then how this changes when the bilbies are presented with a model predator or predator poo outside their burrow. Lisa will compare the responses of bilbies that have been living with cats to those that have not to see if there are any differences. This data will be incredibly useful for Arid Recovery in the long-term to test whether predator awareness of bilbies can be improved if they live with a small number of predators (cats in this case). Lisa will also be able to determine whether there are certain behaviours that we can select for when choosing release animals to make them more likely to survive when faced with real predators in reintroductions outside the reserve.

This article is in honour of the Greater Bilby, once common throughout arid Australia but now only occupies 20% of its former range. We hope through the efforts at Arid Recovery that bilbies will be able to be re-introduced into other areas of arid Australia and their numbers will begin to increase. 


Written by Ruth Shepherd, Arid Recovery and ARC Research intern.

Arid recovery is a conservation initiative supported by:
bhp
adelaide university