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”.



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 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!

A day in the life of an Arid Recovery intern

Admin Aridrecovery - Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Nathan Beerkens takes you through a day in his life as an intern at Arid Recovery

Bilbies rock! (Photo: Samantha Kirby)

How do I even write this? Since I’ve been here my jobs have changed week by week and day by day – you get one job done and move onto whatever is next. And here I’m going to say that my start time is 8-8.30am…ha! Not if you’re trapping! But, here goes, this is an average day where no trapping is going on (if it is, get ready for very early starts and very busy days…)

8 - 8.30am

Rock up to the office and start getting ready for whatever it is that your day holds. If it is going out to the reserve, you get your call-in forms organised, water bottles filled up and gear into the 4WD. If you have a school group or community day, you get your activities ready and put a big smile on your face.

I spend a lot of time mucking around with camera traps

9am – 3pm

Do your thang, whatever that is.

For the first few weeks of the internship this will mean going around with AR staff, familiarising yourself with the reserve and how things work around here. After a month or so, myself and my fellow intern Emily were given projects to work on, so this was the time to do that. Mine was looking at the potential for reintroducing kowaris to the reserve (they’re cool animals, look them up) and Emily was monitoring the effectiveness of our one way gates. Together we also trialled the use of false-floors in pitfall traps, as a way to protect small reptiles from mice.

Fellow intern Emily Gregg with a baby hopping mouse caught during our false floor testing project

Just because we had our own projects does not mean we were limited to this – you are often sidetracked helping out other people with their projects, office duties and all the small things that keep an NGO like Arid Recovery rolling.

You will also find yourself helping out with school groups and activities. There are school camps and daytrips, where you will run workshops on anything from plant surveys to cage trapping and radio-tracking. There are also community events, especially around Easter, when all the kids are excited to meet the Easter Bilby. At these events, and the monthly Saturday community market days, arts and crafts abound. We have also done an incursion to the local area school to teach the kids about who eats who in the animal world.

One of many beautiful art and craft creations (these are Popsicle Pollinators)

Have lunch and plenty of snacks in your bag and eat whenever you want.

3 – 7 / 8.30pm

Back to the office, finish up whatever you were working on and get ready for the next day. Then you can go out and run a sunset and spotlighting tour of the reserve, there’s probably some eager grey nomads coming through town.

After you’re done: Go home. Eat, sleep, whatever.


Cos you’re a good little intern who wants to make the most of your time here, why don’t you volunteer for other things on top of what you already do? I’m sure someone would love some help with spotlighting surveys or bilby chasing as the moonlight shines…

Emily having a "bettong moment"

So, what’s the moral to this story? This internship is busy, but that’s what you want when you’re living in a remote town. You get to dabble in lots of things and also have the responsibility of your own project, which I really liked. The people are nice and happy to help and the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out.

Would recommend.


The best "scale bar" for a stick-nest rat nest photopoint you'll ever see!

Photos by Nathan Beerkens

What ancient giant sharks can teach us about recovering Australian arid zone mammals

Admin Aridrecovery - Friday, April 07, 2017

The ancestors of whales first entered the seas around 50 million years ago, and quite frankly looked ridiculous (see a great video here). They had the mammalian blueprint, and appeared quite clumsy at first. After 20 million years, they evolved into a handful of species. They altered the mammalian design to become more sea-worthy, with their nose behind the head and no more useless feet. Although they were smaller and slower than modern whales, they were still larger than any other predator in the ocean, so they essentially had the place to themselves.

All those whales swimming through the ocean presented a lucrative prey source for a predator to exploit. Soon enough, one species of shark evolved with an effective, yet crude, way of hunting these whales. They grew big enough to attack them.

This shark is called Megalodon, Carcharodon megalodon, and was at least 15m long.

The terrifying Megalodon, Carcharodon megalodon. At over 15 meters long, it was a specialised whale killer. But this predator ultimately had a positive effect on whales, and forced them to become stronger and more diverse. Illustration by Elia Pritle

Considering this shark was the size of a bus, hunting the small, slow whales of that era did not need to be complicated. Megalodons simply ripped off flippers, crushed lungs, or took huge bites from the whales’ sides and waited for them to die. Many of these ancient whales would have become endangered by the predation pressure of this giant shark. Just as in the present day Australian landscape where cats and foxes have been introduced, an entire faunal assemblage found itself suddenly unequipped to deal with a new and vicious predator.

Despite the terror, the Megalodon shark ultimately had a monumental influence on whale evolution. Whales diversified like crazy, and went from what was likely around 6 species to over 20. They became faster, larger and started living and working packs. And they possibly started spending more time in areas Megalodon seemed to avoid, like the polar seas. Ultimately, these ancestral whales became like the whales we know today.

The sharks couldn’t keep up with the speed of evolutionary change in the whales. Their main advantage was their size, but the constraints of the fish blueprint meant they couldn’t evolve to be much larger or faster. Fish hearts are not as effective as mammalian hearts. To get any bigger than the Megalodon, a shark heart simply could not develop to the calibre required to pump blood around the whole enormous body and still move at speed. 

Eventually, the Megalodon ate all the slow moving whales to extinction, and were unable to hunt the better adapted whales of the new era (see here). They lost their primary food source, and went extinct around 2.6 million years ago (see here).

The Megalodon lost.

As far as the whales are concerned, it all worked out for the best. Though countless whales would have died terrible deaths to these brutal predators and species went extinct, as a collective they evolved and won. They adapted, overcame the threat, and ruled the oceans again until humans with harpoons came along a few million years later.

A similar event is occurring in Australia’s arid zone. Until recently, we had a diverse range of native mammals including bilbies, bettongs and stick-nest rats. New predators, the feral cat and red fox, have swept across the country, and most natives did not have effective strategies for dealing with them.

Feral cats have come to Australia and, like the Megalodon sharks, decimated the unadapted mammals like the above Plains Mouse. Can our natives become stronger like the whales did? Photo by Zac Richardson

Unlike the Megalodon versus Whale arms race that occurred over millions of years, the cats and native marsupials have co-occurred together over a mere 200 years at most. This is not enough time for the native animals to slowly evolve avoidance strategies or to develop new physical adaptations. Not only that, the arid zone has been besieged by many other changes such as rabbit plagues, intense cattle and sheep grazing,  and humans hunting with guns. Many of these species have gone extinct as a result.

But the other difference between the ‘Shark vs Whale’ and the ‘Cat vs Marsupial’ stories is that humans are now managing the landscape. We have the ability to jump on Wikipedia and Google Scholar to learn from the ancient whale story! All known knowledge of evolutionary history is available to us, and we can jump in and play referees for a fair and balanced arms race.

At Arid Recovery, our hope is that one day introduced predators and natives can coexist. Like the ancient whales, we know some species may be doomed to persist only on predator-free islands or in reserves. But for others, there is still hope for them to adapt and diversify. We need to find an equilibrium where the threat of feral cats and foxes is low enough to allow some natives to survive and adapt.

Native mammals like the burrowing bettong will hopefully learn to survive in a feral cat infested landscape. Photo by Nathan Beerkens

If we don't take action, will evolution take its own course? Can natives adapt as the whales did? Without conservation management, probably not. Cat and fox densities in Australia are being artificially supplemented. This is both from animals living in towns moving out to the wild (cats), and from the abundance of introduced prey species. For example, plague rabbits can increase cat and fox densities almost 10-fold. I doubt the ancient whales would have survived if they were dealing with 10 times as many Megalodons prowling the oceans.

Using the fences at Arid Recovery, we have been taking the next step forward in preparing native animals for co-existence with introduced predators. In two of our compartments, we add predators to a predetermined threshold, and hope to nudge evolution along in the right direction. By exposing native animals to feral cats, we can encourage natural selection to run its course in a controlled environment, and facilitate the evolution of traits that enable natives to co-exist with cats (read more).

While whales grew bigger and faster, what can we expect native mammals to do? Will they learn to build better burrows for protection? Become better at smelling whether cats are nearby? We can’t be sure, we hope that by setting cat predation at a controlled level, native animals will develop anti-predator traits (see here). The smarter animals, the faster animals, are likely to be rewarded so that the species is pushed to new heights.

In this vein, we’re pleased to announce the next stage of this research. Arid Recovery is partnered with the University of NSW and Bush Heritage through an ARC Linkage project that kicks off again this year. Hopefully, just as the ancient whales did, some of our native arid zone mammals can adapt to this new predator and forge a new future.

Written by Dr Hugh McGregor and Dr Katherine Tuft

Annual Trapping 2017

Admin Aridrecovery - Monday, March 27, 2017
Intern Emily Gregg describes the 2017 annual trapping event in this photo blog.

Only a few weeks ago the Arid Recovery lab was bustling with activity. Our annual pitfall trapping was underway and the reserve was swarming with staff and volunteers, all working to collect and process a host of native critters.

Some animals caught during annual trapping: Smooth Knob-tailed Gecko, Beaked Gecko, Stripe-faced Dunnart, and Painted Dragon (Photos by Ryan Francis)

On Saturday the 4th of March, the team set about digging out trenches and putting up the low fence-line running along the pitfall traps. Thanks to previous work by Arid Recovery staff, the Community Development Program and the Port Augusta Prison Work Camp, the pitfall traps themselves were already dug out, making our job that much easier.

Mel and her team digging out trenches and setting up pitfall lines. (Photos by Tony Pitt)

Once opened, the traps were checked at dawn and dusk, and each animal was placed in a catch bag and taken back to the lab for processing. Each animal was then released back to the same site the following day.

Mel’s team checking traps, featuring a newly captured Dunnart, some Plains Mice and a Broad-banded sand-swimmer in a pitfall trap (Photos by Melissa Jensen and Nathan Beerkens)

Our annual pitfall surveys give us the opportunity to get a grasp of the abundance and diversity of the small mammals and reptiles living within the reserve. They also provide a chance to compare populations inside and outside the fence, and see whether certain animals are doing better without the threat of feral predators.

Processing animals in the lab, featuring a baby Gibber Earless Dragon, a Plains Mouse, Beaked Gecko, and Barking Gecko
(Photos by Melissa Jensen and Emily Gregg)

This was an impressive year, with the team catching 778 animals in total! This number included a whopping 420 reptiles, and 358 mammals. This increase may be partially due to our altered trapping method; this year we replaced Elliot traps with an additional pitfall line at each site.

This year we also collected invertebrates during trapping. These insects and arthropods are being sent to La Trobe University for identification, in order to investigate the diversity of invertebrate species inside and outside the reserve.

Hopping Mouse, Western Barred Bandicoot, and Plains Mouse (Photos by Ryan Francis)

As explained in Kath’s last blog, the Plains Mouse (Pseudomys australis) is doing incredibly well within the reserve. This year we caught 236 of them! Of these, almost all were found within the reserve, with only eight found outside. It’s a similar story for the Spinifex Hopping Mouse (Notomys alexis), another species which the team saw a lot of over the course of trapping. A bonus mammal catch this year was a juvenile Western Barred Bandicoot (Perameles bougainville), found within the Main exclosure by Katherine Moseby’s team.

Thank you to all the volunteers involved this year. This annual survey would not be able to occur without your help and enthusiasm!

Education Centre to be built at Arid Recovery

Admin Aridrecovery - Friday, March 24, 2017

We’re delighted to announce that this year we’ll be building an Education Centre at the Reserve.

In January we applied through Fund My Idea and got busy on social media to encourage the community to vote for our project. We were overwhelmed by the support and this Tuesday had word that we were one of the 2 top-voted projects. Arid Recovery will receive $15,000 from the State Government and a further contribution from BHP Billiton to make the Education Centre a reality. Congratulations also to Whyalla RSPCA for their successful project to upgrade emergency pet boarding facilities.

Buildings donated by Roxby Downs Caravan Park are moved into place, ready to be retrofitted into the Education Centre

The building will have a ‘Field Classroom’ for wildlife education activities indoors, between nature walks and spotlighting for native animals. There will also be a bunkroom for overnight camps, boosting the accommodation at the Reserve to 18 beds.

With the new Centre we will be able to host more and larger school groups, community groups and visitors. It will enable more people to get out to the reserve and have an encounter with animals they’re unlikely to see anywhere else.

The Centre will be built by retrofitting portable buildings donated by the Roxby Downs Caravan Park and moved into place by Toll. We’re ready to source materials from local businesses and the Rotary Clubs of Roxby Downs and Frankston (VIC) are enthusiastic to support the build with their team of tradies.

Thanks to everyone who voted and supported this project. We look forward to opening the new Education Centre by the end of the year.

The Education Centre will be a base for more students and visitors to have close encounters with desert wildlife that will make a lasting impression.

Build it and they will come

Admin Aridrecovery - Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Sometimes threatened species turn up on your doorstep. Kath Tuft describes how Plains Mice reintroduced themselves to Arid Recovery.

As anyone who has ever assisted a species reintroduction program will know, it’s a heckload of effort. Detailed translocation proposals and ethics applications need to be prepared. Animals have to be captured and transported from source populations, often on remote islands. Animals must be fitted with radiocollars and then intensely monitored for many months following reintroduction. All of this can take years, thousands of staff and volunteer hours, and big bucks (Moseby et al. 2011).

Nicki Munro and John Read release one of the first bilbies into Arid Recovery.

We had an incredible instance where a threatened species turned up of its own accord without anyone lifting a finger. This was the Plains Mouse, Pseudomys australis, a beautiful little native mouse from arid Australia.

Plains Mice were once widespread across large parts of inland Australia. Now their distribution is greatly shrunken and their occurrence almost entirely confined to a specific cracking clay habitat with characteristic depressions known as gilgais (Brandle et al. 1999). Plains Mice persist in parts of far northern South Australia, but had never been recorded near Roxby Downs and the Arid Recovery Reserve until 2006.

A young Plains Mouse. Photo: Helen Crisp

That was the year I first came to Arid Recovery as a volunteer on the annual vertebrate trapping survey. To everyone’s surprise, a unique rodent with a Roman nose and short tail turned up at a trapping site within the Northern Expansion. It turned out to be one of the first Plains Mice recorded in the area for many decades.

When the main trapping survey had ended I was tasked with finding out more about these new arrivals. Were there more? What habitats were they occurring in? What burrows were they using? I had a great time trapping about the place and surveying for burrows. To find their burrows we lightly glued tiny glow sticks to fur on their backs and followed them as they bounced off with their little beacon. At that time, the Plains Mice were confined to a fairly small area of the cracking clay and gilgai habitat they are known for.

Me trapping Plains Mice 11 years ago. Photo: Hugh McGregor

Coming back to Arid Recovery 10 years later the situation is entirely different. There are Plains Mice absolutely everywhere. You can’t drive anywhere without seeing them scampering across the track. Where once they were confined to the classic cracking clay areas, they now occupy all habitats within the reserve: dunes, stony swales and canegrass swamps. The first Plains Mice to colonise the reserve very quickly found they were onto a good thing with no feral cats and foxes to prey on them. With that predation pressure relieved, they happily occupied the whole place in abundance.

Map of Plains Mice records in 2006 (left) and in 2016 (right). From one corner of the reserve, they have spread across the entire place in all habitats.

How did they find Arid Recovery in the first place? Plains Mice were known from areas several hundred kilometres further north near Lake Eyre, but not as far south as Roxby Downs. The likely answer is that Plains Mice were given a lucky break by the release of calicivirus, Australia’s first rabbit biocontrol. Calici swept through the rabbit population in the late 1990’s. The huge drop in rabbit numbers seemed to lead to a substantial reduction in the numbers of feral cats and foxes. Plains Mice, and other small native mammals, expanded in range as a result (Pedler et al. 2016).

What’s particularly neat about the Plains Mice at Arid Recovery, is that they might now be re-seeding the surrounding landscape. Trapping over the last few years has found them in good numbers outside the Reserve.

Abundance of Plains Mice at trapping sites inside and outside the reserve over time.

The resourceful Plains Mouse did all the hard work of reintroducing itself into the haven that is Arid Recovery. Hopefully in time we will see them disperse and re-establish well beyond the Reserve itself. These little rodents have shown that predator-proof fenced reserves can have value well beyond their core purpose of protecting reintroduced critical weight range species.

We eagerly await the next endangered species to show up on our doorstep and find sanctuary.

Reporting on failures

Admin Aridrecovery - Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Arid Recovery’s commitment to sharing all research outcomes for everyone to learn from

Arid Recovery’s ambitious goal is to see vulnerable native animals restored to Australia’s vast open landscapes, out of fences and roaming freely. To make any headway in this ambition it is essential to try new things, but this of course comes with risks. As is to be expected, we don’t always get the outcomes we want. Frequently when we try an idea it will fail. Over the last 20 years we have tested methods for establishing native animals outside of fences and found, that introduced cats and foxes usually overcome our efforts.

One of Arid Recovery’s objectives is to strive to publish everything: the good, the bad and the ugly. As we measure and monitor everything we do, these failures or setbacks are an opportunity to learn and further our understanding. We are not focused on good news stories, but on the only story that matters: what is actually happening.

We cannot hide from the fact that our conservation programs have led to animal deaths. Between 2006 and 2008 we ran the ‘Wild West’ project that was an attempt to establish a population of bilbies outside the reserve (read the paper). Enormous efforts went into feral cat and fox control with many hours put in by volunteers. We even tried training naïve bilbies to be wary of predators by exposing them to predator scents and models and associating them with an unpleasant experience. Despite our best efforts removing feral cats and foxes from quarterly aerial baiting, continual trapping and shooting, the attempt ultimately failed with the last bilby dying 19 months after release: a failure in most senses.

A bilby killed by a feral predator

However, we learnt so much from this failure. We now know that broad feral cat control is not necessarily that effective, but that targeted removal of individual killer cats may be. We learnt that training bilbies with scents and models of predators is no substitute for the real thing. These lessons are published in scientific journals, and have clearly shown us what we needed to do next. The experience led to our current project on Tackling Prey Naivety in collaboration with the University of NSW (and more here). Already there is success building on the foundation of the earlier failures.  We now have bilbies (and bettongs) coexisting with a low density population of cats.

There are other complexities and unexpected lessons learnt along the way too. The good news story of booming populations of threatened species reintroduced into the predator-proof reserve is not so simple. Our greatest success – returning some vulnerable mammals otherwise extinct on the mainland such as the Burrowing Bettong – has had a setback. Bettong numbers are now too high, damaging the condition of the vegetation in the reserve and reducing the food available for other species. Once again, by recognising the problem, analysing it, and not shying away from bad stories, we have been able to begin developing solutions. Currently we are testing one-way gates as a means for bettongs to disperse and relieve the pressure on the reserve, along with other options. Our commitment is that if this doesn’t work, we will still publish what we learn for the benefit of everyone.

Will these stories that are sometimes unsavoury cost us? It could taint our image in some people’s minds and could expose us to sound-bite criticisms from oversimplified media. But we believe this openness is critical to moving conservation forward in Australia.

We recognise that many organisations cannot often afford to stray from the good news stories to the same extent as we can by admitting the occasional failure. Politicians and public servants understandably wish to prevent government departments from being accused of ‘failing’ or ‘wasting tax dollars’, and big charities can ill afford to appear to ‘waste’ generous donations. This is in large part why so many insights and so much valuable information continue to lie in internal reports. It is an understandable waste, but a waste nonetheless.

We are optimistic that, collectively, we will eventually meet our goal of restoring lost mammals to Australia’s arid interior. One day, this battle may be over. Natives, cats and rabbits will, we hope, coexist with minimal intervention. To get there we need to build on our understanding of how arid ecosystems work and develop new methods for dealing with threats. Only by testing every assumption, by analysing every mistake, and by boldly trying risky ideas can we push our knowledge forward. To this end, we aim to publish papers on every one of our failures. By learning from these failures, not only we but also everyone else pushing conservation forward can gain some real ground.

Western Quolls suited to life at Arid Recovery

Admin Aridrecovery - Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Luke Tilley followed the trial reintroduction of Quolls to Arid Recovery to see where quolls sheltered, what they ate and what habitat they used.

by Luke Tilley (Honours student, University of Adelaide)

We know that the Arid Recovery Reserve is a suitable place for Western Quolls to breed and raise young. Although these two youngsters were a month off independence when their mother died, they survived on their own for 10 days before being taken into care. They have since been released into the Flinders Ranges to boost the quoll population there. Photo credit: Gini Andersen

Arid Recovery is working towards reintroducing Western Quolls to the arid outback of South Australia. Quolls are large marsupial predators that once played an important role in the ecosystem. My honours project involved looking at the shelter use, habitat use and diet of the four Western Quolls reintroduced to the Arid Recovery Reserve throughout 2015 and 2016. I also looked at the potential impacts of a full scale quoll reintroduction on the populations of in situ species, including the overabundant Burrowing Bettong. It has been well documented that within the Reserve, bettongs are overbrowsing vegetation, resulting in a significantly negative effect on cover and structure.

I found that quolls used bettong warrens and single entrance burrows almost exclusively for day time shelter over the nests of Greater Stick-nest Rats. Only one nest was found to be utilised for shelter by a quoll. They selected dune habitat over swale and swamp habitats for night time foraging, and sheltered almost exclusively in dune habitats.

A total of 74 scat samples were collected and analysed. Scats contained Burrowing Bettong, Western-barred Bandicoot, native rodents (plains rats and hopping mice), Greater Stick-nest Rat and other prey items (invertebrates, skinks etc). Greater Bilby was not detected in any of the scats analysed. Quolls ate rodents in the same proportion as they were available in the reserve. They ate fewer Bettongs, Bandicoots or Stick-nest Rats than would be expected if they were hunting according to what was available, indicating that they mostly hunt smaller prey but may take larger species like bettongs when they are juveniles.

Frequency of prey items in Western Quoll scats compared to track counts

Quolls did not show any strong preference for hunting one prey species over another, suggesting they may not pose a threat to some of the more vulnerable less abundant reintroduced species such as Stick-nest Rats. However, it's hard to be certain what the population-level impact might be of a full-scale quoll introduction on other species so they will need to be monitored closely when a reintroduction goes ahead.

Quolls have the potential to be a predator of bettongs and help to regulate their population. However, we suspect that other management strategies, such as one-way gates, will need to be used in conjunction with a full quoll reintroduction for quolls to be effective ecosystem regulators.

Quoll reintroduction set for 2018

The great work of Katherine Moseby, Bec West and Luke Tilley in trialing a Western Quoll introduction has shown us that it can be done, and taught us some valuable lessons (e.g. some quolls can and will climb out of the fence and head off). We’re working towards a full reintroduction of quolls to happen in early 2018. This gives us extra time for quolls in the Flinders Ranges, WA and captivity to breed up so we can have a full contingent of new spotty predators to bring back to the arid zone.


Year of the Quoll
12 Dec, 2018
Year of the Quoll – A reintroduction update By Nathan Beerkens 2018 was a big year. After two years of trials and research ( .. ..
Read More

Arid recovery is a conservation initiative supported by:
adelaide university