How the Tricky Stickies got their name- How to catch a rat!

Kimberley Solly - Thursday, August 27, 2015

Greater stick-nest rats (Leporillus conditor) are best known for their ability to build themselves a home out of sticks; however their nests can be well hidden and hard to find.  For this reason the stickies have remained quite elusive to researchers at Arid Recovery since their re-introduction in 1999. 

Can you spot the ear tag on this Greater stick-nest rat? Credit: Casey Harris


Another factor that has hindered researchers getting to know our stickies are the boisterous burrowing bettongs (Bettogia lesueur). There are many more bettongs at Arid Recovery than stick-nest rats so if you set cage traps for stickies outside their nests you’ll most likely find them full of bettongs. One method that’s had more success is to fit a plywood board to the front of the cage trap with only a small hole for the rats to squeeze through. However, not to be stopped the burrowing bettongs have become exceptionally good at bouncing and knocking over the cage traps to try to get to the bait inside.

So when Bec West the Research Officer for the ARC linkage project needed to trap and fit radiocollars to at least 20 stick-nest rats she needed to think outside of the box. Bec found that the best way to catch a rat was by using a ‘ratstaurant’, a nifty excluder with an even better name! A ratstaurant looks a bit like a top hat made of 50mm chicken wire mesh and pegged into the ground with droppers. The rats can squeeze through the mesh and the bettongs can’t dig under. Place an Elliot trap with a nutritious and healthy treat of carrots inside the ratstaurant and bingo! You can catch stickies and not bettongs.


Ratstaurant monitored by remote camera. Credit: Bec West


“There’s nothing more rewarding than finding a Greater stick-nest rat in a trap, it means we’ve outwitted the bettongs” said Bec West.



A Tricky Stickie caught in the act feeding within a ratstaurant. Credit: Bec West


Twenty-one stickies have now been fitted with a unique ear tag number and a radio collar, which continues to provide more and more information on these secretive stickies. Before this study commenced 30 known nests were monitored biannually to check for activity, the list has now grown to 63 nests. Radiotracking stickies has allowed Bec and her team to discover new nests across the 60 km2 area that the Greater stick-nest rats inhabit. Previous observations on stickies found that they sheltered in penguin burrows on islands and rabbit burrows on mainland Australia (Moseby & Bice, 2004; Troughton, 1924). The stickies at Arid Recovery have been tracked to new nests, but also to new bettong warrens.  While the burrows may not show signs of stickie activity aboveground, they may be crucial for sheltering stickies over relatively cold winters. The male rats that are collared have also been roaming far and wide (up to 1.5km between shelter sites) so they have had the team out on ‘stickie-hunts’ trying to track them down. You can see why they have got the name ‘Tricky Stickies’ from the research team – hard to find, hard to trap and hard to track!

Now that the rats are collared the ARC team will set traps at each nest twice a year to better understand the survival, movement and nest dynamics of the stickies. The team are also testing their predator savviness by seeing how closely then can approach stickies at night, and how they behave when they are exposed to different predator (dingo, cat, mulga snake, quoll) scents while feeding. We wonder whether they will continue to be so ‘tricky’.

Written by Kimberley Solly, Scientific and Education Officer and Bec West, Research Officer for ARC Tackling Prey Naiveté Project

References:

Moseby K.E. and Bice J. (2004). A trial reintroduction of the Greater Stick-nest Rat (Leporillus conditor) in arid South Australia. Ecological Management and Restoration 5(2) 118-124.

Troughton ELG (1924) The Stick-nest building rats of Australia, Australian Museum Magazine, 11, 18-23. 

Gearing up for annual trapping

Developer 2 (MM) - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

From Monday February 11 until Friday February 15, the Arid Recovery annual trapping event will be taking place, filling the week with small mammals and reptiles of the arid zone.

Once again staff and volunteers are gearing up for the big week, with preparations well underway to ensure it runs smoothly. 2013 will see the 16th year this unique event has run, the longest running program of its kind in Australia. Data collated from this annual event clearly shows the impact that feral predators such as cats and foxes have on our native small mammal and reptile populations. Over the years small mammal numbers have increased, now capturing 6 times more small mammals inside the Reserve than outside.

Not only has data shown that cats and foxes have a devastating impact, but also that the Reserve plays an important role as a refuge for many small mammal species. The Plains Rat (Pseudomys australis) was once found across the arid and semi-arid areas of Western Australia, across to central Queensland and to the mouth of the Murray River. Now classed as vulnerable by the IUCN, they are restricted to the gibber plains of the Lake Eyre Basin.

The trapping week ran for a number of years before the first Plains Rat was captured for the first time inside the Reserve. It was an exciting moment for all involved, with the species not trapped in the area for the previous 10 years. Protected areas such as the Arid Recovery Reserve are integral in providing a refuge for these small animals and protecting habitat that may otherwise see their species go extinct.

Ecological surveys such as those undertaken at Arid Recovery and across the nation by other organisations provide us with important information. “Trapping programs such as the Arid Recovery small mammal and reptile trapping help to establish important data on habitat preference and population distribution, integral in the protection of the small critters we are trying to protect,” said Arid Recovery Ecologist Catherine Lynch. “The vegetation has dried significantly since our last trapping event, it will be interesting to see how the animals are responding to this and if numbers have fluctuated.”

A display will once again be up in the Roxby Downs Visitor Information Centre, updated each day with photos of the week from how trapping sites are set up, through to the cute critters caught. The laboratory on the corner of Charlton Road and Olympic Way will be opened up to interested members of the public on Thursday 14th from 3-5pm. Anyone interested in seeing how small reptiles and mammals are processed, and finding out which species call the desert home are invited to call the Arid Recovery office and register their interest for the afternoon.

For further information on taking part in the week, or to find out how the week went last year, please visit the Arid Recovery website http://www.aridrecovery.org.au/2012-annual-trapping .

Termites and toilet rolls

Developer 2 (MM) - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Termites play an important role in the environment. They are important providers of ecosystem processes such as nutrient recycling, decomposition and as a by-product create homes for lizards, birds, ants and mammals. Incorrectly called ‘white ants,’ not all termites eat wood and damage your house. Out of the 350 species that occur in Australia, only 12 damage timber. Latrobe PhD student Nicole Coggan first visited Arid Recovery in 2011 to study the effect digging marsupials (bettongs and bilbies) have on termites. She is now in the process of analysing her data.

Bilbies and bettongs are regionally extinct throughout Australia. Nicole wanted to investigate if their reintroductions and incessant digging influenced termite and ant assemblages across a series of habitats. Nicole’s study involved the mammoth task of digging a trench in four different habitats inside and outside the Reserve and counting and identifying every single termite she found, weighing them and calculating their biomass. If termites had the chance they would live everywhere, unfortunately for those at Arid Recovery they share their environment with those pesky digging marsupials. The presence of reintroduced bilbies and bettongs reduces termite abundance by 50% and a decline in termite genera present.

Collecting termites for weighing and analysis- those with poor eyesight need not apply to volunteer! Photo by: Nicole Coggan

The second part of Nicole’s study looked at the consequences of marsupial disturbances for termites, or also known as the toilet roll experiment. Using over a thousand toilet rolls to attract termites, Nicole and her swagger of volunteers buried them in the soil inside and outside the Reserve. Six months later Nicole returned and pretended to be a bilby digging in the soil. Nicole was able to compare how quickly the termites fled when they were disturbed by the faux bilbies inside versus outside the Reserve. After 24 hours almost 75% of termites were lost from the disturbed rolls inside the Reserve compared to 50% from outside the Reserve. More bad news for the termites, opportunistic ants are attracted to the disturbed toilet rolls, who will eat termites. Death generally awaits termites insides the Reserve.

 

One of the toilet roll study sites. The sticks helped Nicole to find the individual toilet rolls upon her return 6 months later. Photo by: Nicole Coggan

It’s not all bad for termites. Unlike our reintroduced marsupials there is no danger of them becoming extinct. Although termites are affected by soil disturbance made by digging marsupials, they are able to change the way in which they use their habitat. They avoid resources and habitats frequented by bilbies and bettongs.

Nicole's study would not have been able without assistance from LaTrobe University, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment and Arid Recovery.

A study into Bandicoot Real Estate

Developer 2 (MM) - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Back in 2000, 11 western barred bandicoots were transported from Bernier Island in Western Australia and released in Arid Recovery’s Main Exclosure. The program was a success, and since then bandicoots have been released to other areas of the reserve. It’s been 12 years after their reintroduction and besides being adorable what else have the bandicoots been up to? We had honours student Melissa Jensen from the University of Adelaide come to Arid Recovery to find out.

Western barred bandicoots rely on leaf litter for nest construction. It is believed the high number of burrowing bettongs at the reserve contribute to the dispersal of leaf litter, therefore making it difficult for the bandicoots to construct their nests. Melissa investigated whether bandicoots are more prolific in areas containing high densities of leaf litter and if they avoid areas used extensively by bettongs. Melissa used 52 track quadrats in areas of high, medium and low leaf litter throughout the Main Exclosure and Second Expansion. Track quadrats used a similar method to Arid Recovery track transects by counting the numbers of bandicoot, bettong and other animals in a small square.

 

Katherine Moseby and Melissa processing a bandicoot in after capturing it. Small transmitters were attached to a number of bandicoots so they could be radio tracked the next day. Photo by: Caitlin Weatherstone

She discovered bandicoot activity within the Reserve does not appear to be affected by the presence of high numbers of bettongs and they are not concentrated around areas of high leaf litter. Interestingly bandicoots are able to scrape up litter in a radius of 50 cm around the nest site.

The study also examined the home range location and sizes, diurnal nest site locations and patterns of use by the bandicoots within the Reserve. Melissa radio tracked six bandicoots and recorded their movements, both day and night. Melissa recalls, “They really are sweet little things and it was quite a thrill to see him happily run off into the night with his brand new radio transmitter attached.” The home ranges of the bandicoot studied within the reserve averaged 6.0 ha for males and 2.9 ha for females. The ranges of females were restricted to a single dune, whilst males utilised several dunes.

 

Student Melissa Jensen radio tracking a bandicoot during her study at the AR Reserve. Photo by: Caitlin Weatherstone

The reintroduction of the bandicoot at Arid Recovery is a success and their nesting sites are not limited by the booming bettong population, however, their nesting sites would be easily accessible to potential predators. Although safe within the feral free Reserve, control of feral predator species remains a high priority for reintroductions of the bandicoot to new locations in the future.

Melissa had never worked in the arid zone before and found her field work exciting and rewarding. “I gained a great appreciation for the harsh but beautiful landscape, met some great people and learnt so much.”

Melissa would like to thank the Nature Foundation SA for providing funding a support towards her project.

A Western Barred Bandicoot spotted during a spotlight walk. Photo by: Caitlin Weatherstone

Arid Recovery Annual Trapping 2013

Developer 2 (MM) - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

With the weather well and truly warmed up, staff at AR are spotting many a reptile out at the Reserve, be they a large sand goanna perched on the foot netting sunning himself, or a glimpse of a bright orange Ford’s Dragon as they scurry across the dune. This reminds us that annual trapping is just around the corner with preparations already underway.

 

Katy Read and Helen Crisp digging in a pitfall line for 2012 Annual Trapping.

Annual trapping this year will run from Sunday 10th of February through to Saturday 16th, a week of pit fall and Elliott trapping for small mammals and reptiles of the arid zone. The week can be long, but mighty rewarding when you catch a glimpse of dark and beady dunnart eyes peering back at you from the depths of an Elliott trap.

Although a list of keen volunteers has already been compiled, we are asking any of our members to register their interest in the annual trapping event for next year. Or, if you are a local Roxby member interested in seeing what all the fuss is about, you may be keen to head out for just one evening of animal releasing.

Volunteer Rowan Carroll releasing a Knob- tailed Gecko during trapping earlier this year.

Volunteers taking part in the week will be provided with accommodation and food throughout the week for just $300. Whilst the early mornings had certainly taken their toll on volunteers at the event earlier this year, the experience of meeting new like-minded people and getting up close and personal with the small inhabitants of the arid zone was great reward. Check out some of the photos from the previous trapping week via our Facebook page www.facebook.com/AridRecovery

Unfortunately we may not be able to offer a position to all those who wish to take part, but to register your interest as a volunteer for the week please contact the office on 08 8671 2402 or email your details through to volunteer@aridrecovery.org.au

Life at the AR Reserve

Developer 2 (MM) - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Although the AR staff are now quite used to the antics of our cheeky burrowing bettongs, they still surprise a few of our other visitors. One of our volunteers, Scott, over from Melbourne for a few weeks to help us out, caught some footage of one of our cute little residents...

...Scorching daytime temperatures belie the amazing diversity of life that inhabits Australia’s arid zone. For those of us living on the Arid Recovery reserve this summer, each night offers an encounter with some of Australia’s rarest and most remarkable creatures.

A personal favourite is the Burrowing Bettong. Since their introduction on the reserve in 1999 the number of bettongs has grown to over 2000. Curious and infinitely cute, the bettongs emerge from their warrens at around sunset to forage around the accommodation block (or Atco). This video was taken out the front of the Atco...

Click on the photo below to follow the link to the YouTube video.

 

 

Bilbies in the fight against global warming!

Developer 2 (MM) - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

We already know well that rabbits have wreaked havoc on the Australian landscape, eating up our native plants and kicking some of our native mammals out of their homes. And those little holes that they dig all over the place that you might be unlucky enough to roll your ankle in aren’t too good for our environment either! Whilst our bilbies and bettongs dig similar holes, it has been shown they are much more beneficial for the environment.

A study completed at Lorna Glen in central Western Australia used data loggers to record temperature and humidity, amongst other things, in bilby diggings, and in areas that had not been disturbed. The results showed that the microclimate (the climate inside the bilby digging) compared to that in areas of soil that were not disturbed, was not as variable. The difference in humidity levels and temperature during the night and day, was not as great as that in other areas. For a quick over view of the findings, click here.

Arid Recovery has also completed research on the role that bilby digs play in ecosystems, and has some interesting results. The data showed there were higher levels of carbon in bilby digs, compared to those of rabbits. Our native species are helping us try combat global warming! Data about the rate of mulga germination also shows that our native fauna helps out our native flora. Rates of mulga germination are higher inside bilby digs when compared to rabbit digs or undisturbed soil. This could be due to a number of factors, possibly higher levels of nutrients in bilby digs due to exposing the deeper soil which is more fertile than the top soil, or the small hole collecting leaf litter and water, which breaks down to increase soil fertility.  

 

A graph depicting the average percentage of carbon in a bilby dig compared to the soil surface. Graph by Alex James

A graph depicting the average number of mulga seedlings in bilby digs compared to rabbit digs and the surface. Bilby digs have nearly 3 times more seedlings than rabbit digs or on the surface! Graph by Shannon Sparkes

Thanks for some of the research and findings about bilby digs and their roles as environmental engineers must go to a number of students we have hosted over the years.

Corridors for our threatened species

Developer 2 (MM) - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Australia has quite a bit of protected area, national parks, conservation reserves and private bushland scattered across the country. Whilst this protected area is great, they kind of look like islands when you look at their locations on a map. The roads, farming country and residential areas in between these pockets make it quite difficult for animals to move between them, and disrupts natural processes such as the flow of rivers and the dispersal of seeds. Wildlife corridors could be the solution to this, and a number of other issues, and the federal government has introduced a new plan to help us develop a national wildlife corridor system.

A wildlife corridor is just what it sounds like, a link between separated patches of habitat, joining them up across the landscape. They come in many shapes and forms such as a river or creek line, a revegetated roadside or on private land where bushland may have been left along a fence to protect from erosion.

Wildlife corridors are important, as they link up otherwise isolated populations of plants and animals. This helps to maintain diversity and resilience of a species as well as opening up areas of habitat where species may not have been able to access previously. Migratory animals such as some of our birds, will be able to move safely from their homes, with a reduced risk of encountering human built dangers.

Diagram of the land use practices that can contribute to wildlife corridors. Diagram courtesy of www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/wildlife-corridors/about

The federal government has developed the National Wildlife Corridors Plan, which will reconnect the Australian landscape. For the success of this plan, it will involve cooperation and participation from landholders, community, industry and government. Communities and organisations will be able to nominate areas they wish to see added to the national wildlife corridor network. Those that fit the criteria will be approved, and could then receive priority for funding through initiatives such as Caring for our Country and the Biodiversity Fund.

For more information on the National Wildlife Corridors Plan, or to read the document head to www.environment.gov.au/wildlife-corridors  

A cute visitor to the AR office

Developer 2 (MM) - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The staff at Arid Recovery were lucky to have a very cute visitor in the office recently. James, the joey kangaroo, was brought in to us by a local truck driver, when his mother ran into the side of the truck. Although the staff at Arid Recovery do not have the training to care for injured wildlife, or the permits, we took him in for several hours until someone was able to. Which raised the question for us, what is the best thing to do when you find a joey or other injured and neglected wildlife?

"James" the joey who spent the morning in the Arid Recovery office until we were able to get him help.

We spoke to a representative from Fauna Rescue SA, on the most important things you can do when you find a joey.

  • Joeys are usually in shock- you would be too if your mother had just passed away. The best thing to do is to give them warmth, either wrapped in an old towel or jumper and pressed up against your body. If available a hot water bottle is useful, or a wheat bag warmed up. Be sure to wrap these in a towel first though, direct contact with the animal can burn or overheat them.
  • Keep their surrounds quiet and dark. Joeys will often get diarrhoea when stressed so the best thing to do is turn the radio down or a quiet room away from people and cover their head loosely with an old sheet or blanket. You will find most will shy away from light, and try to “snuggle” into the bag or blankets you have them in.
  • Do not feed the joey milk. The lactose in dairy makes them extremely sick, and can kill them. Wombaroo have developed food products for a range of animals, including milk replacements for kangaroos at all stages of development. These can be found at local veterinary surgeries, pet food stores and online.
  • Once you have the animal settled, the next best thing to do is call your local wildlife carer. Your local council or veterinary clinic will sometimes have these details, or you can contact Fauna Rescue South Australia and they will be able to provide you with guidance and details on your closest carer.

The three basic principles for any injured or neglected wildlife is warm, dark and quiet. If you are not a qualified carer, the best thing to do is get the animal to the closest carer to ensure their survival. For more information on caring for joey kangaroo’s, or any other Australian wildlife, visit the Fauna Rescue SA website at www.faunarescue.org.au .

Aussie Biodiversity

Developer 2 (MM) - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Australia is a unique country, our climate is one of the harshest and most diverse in the world and our animals have grown special traits and physical changes to adapt to our environment.

The desert in Australia is one of the driest and hottest in the world, yet it still contains an abundance of wildlife. Animals need to know how to conserve water when there is not much around. A bilby for instance does not consume much water at all, it gets a majority of its water from the food it eats, and not only straight from the plant itself, but these animals have a special method of extracting water using metabolisation. This means that as the animal eats the food it uses small chemical reactions inside the body to digest food and get the energy they need from it, as they do so the reactions produce by-products like the exhaust from a car, these by-products include heat and water. These animals can also lose heat to stay cool such as hiding inside burrows during the day where it can become up to 45˚c, large thin ears like those found on many Australian species are effective at losing heat as well.

This photo shows the large ears of a bilby, the pores and the veins which help them to release heat from their body and cool down.

The Australian mainland has been separated from the rest of the world for millions of years so our animals have adapted on their own to become a completely unique population, kangaroo’s for instance have evolved to jump instead of walk as it takes less energy. Biodiversity is extremely important to our land as it provides a self-sustaining balance of nature which we often throw out of balance with the introduction of feral animals or pollution. So the next time you’re next to a tree or a bush spare a thought for about how important it could be as a food source or shelter for an animal.

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