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.


One of the most unique Green Army Projects in Australia

Admin Aridrecovery - Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Few young people (aged 17-24) in Australia have the opportunity to get so close to the running and management of a world class conservation, research and education facility such as the Arid Recovery Reserve (our Project Partner). The wisdom and inclusiveness of Arid Recovery staff and their allies over the past 20-weeks has provided experiences our Participants will be able to use and reflect on in both their professional and personal lives. The Green Army is an Australian Government initiative which provides opportunities for Participants to work on local community and conservation projects, while gaining skills and training that can help them enter the workforce or improve their career pathways. 


An early morning of bilby trapping and processing with researcher Lisa Steindler. All photos credited to: Adrian Friedel

The work we have carried out at the Reserve falls into two broad categories: infrastructure maintenance, and science and research. Fence upkeep is integral to the Reserve’s success and ‘feral-free’ mantra. A large focus of this Project was replacing footnetting in areas where the integrity of the original skirt was starting to fail (through rusting and chemical breakdown). In some cases we used reclaimed netting from decommissioned pastoral fences within the reserve, to reduce pressure on a stretched budget. We also foot-netted the western fenceline of the 2nd Expansion, an area which was once used as a control, but now supports burrowing residents from the surrounding exclosures. 


All in a days work - Fencing is an integral part of Arid Recovery. 

The last few weeks of our Project included conducting vegetation monitoring using a quadrat-based method to quantify the impact of particularly bettongs on vegetation species inside the Reserve (using a selection of sites outside the Reserve for comparison). This replicates adds to a study first conducted in 2013. Given that current bettong populations are considered a little on the high side, we expect a marked contrast in plant condition. 

My team has also enjoyed participating in community activities such as regular market days, the Arid Recovery Quiz night and Christmas pageant. Together with contributions to the online presence of the Reserve (through blog and photo submissions), this has provided an insight into the importance integrated community involvement in maintaining the regional profile of the Reserve. The team also had the chance to visit Bon Bon Reserve to assist with wombat warren monitoring and maintenance tasks. 

Having the opportunity to get up close and personal to the unique wildlife of Arid Recovery lists as another highlight, and we are grateful for the generosity of visiting (and resident) researchers in incorporating the Green Army with some of their catching and processing activities.


The team regularly assisted at community events and fundraisers.

Written by Adrian Friedel, Round 2 Green Army Supervisor

20 years of cat control: keeping threatened species safe

Admin Aridrecovery - Monday, December 19, 2016


Buoyed after another successful week of cat control, Field and Maintenance Officer John Crompton and our dedicated volunteer shooters removed 13 cats and 4 foxes in one week. Each of the cats had between 1 and 5 native mice in their stomachs, including the threatened Plains Mouse. It is sobering to think of just how many animals these cats are killing every night, but we’re glad our feral predator control is making a difference.

Our feral predator control is partly about making a safe haven around the perimeter of the Arid Recovery fence, but also helps to keep cats and foxes out of the Reserve. Our fence is designed to be cat and fox proof, but we have to ensure there are no incursions of feral animals from damage to the fence.

Our floppy-top fence design is an extremely effective deterrent. Cats that attempt to breach the fence by pouncing on the floppy top are flung to the ground. But as everyone knows, feral cats are incredibly intelligent. If given enough time, and presented with a reward as good as the defenceless native animals inside, they will instantly take advantage of any weak point.

Our fence is currently our best defence against feral animals. Photo Credit: Kimberley Solly

Just recently, the September storm that cut off power to South Australia, also blew the floppy top inwards along sections of our western boundary. Not long afterwards we found cat tracks inside the Reserve.

Over the last 19 years, a few individual cats have breeched the fence like this. Removing them has been a herculean effort. It’s one thing to remove one cat of many in an open landscape, but to seek out and remove one lone cat in a sea of native animals is something else altogether. Great care must be taken when using traps and shooting. Usually the whole Arid Recovery team and volunteer community have to hunt intensively for months on end.

So our feral predator control strategy is to remove cats before they have time to study the fence for weaknesses. To this end, we created a permanent set of cat traps along the outside perimeter of the fence. To draw cats in, we have tried every lure imaginable: fish oil, cat urine piss and sound players that make meowing sounds. These typically catch between one and fives cats per week.

On top of these permanent traps, we also have a team of dedicated volunteer shooters. Feral control not only reduces the risk of incursion, it also creates a buffer zone protecting native animals around the perimeter of the reserve.  Some volunteer shooters have removed over 50 cats and foxes for us. No doubt many of the bilbies and bettongs of Arid Recovery owe their lives to their efforts.

John Crompton our Field and Maintenance Officer patrols the fence and permanent trap sites. Photo Credit: Charmayne Cronje

Unfortunately, no matter how much cat control we do, we will never eradicate cats from this region. There will always be new cats to wander in from elsewhere; whether they are strays from towns or ferals from far far away. But thanks to the rigours and dedicated efforts of staff and volunteers, we have at least kept their numbers lower than they would have been otherwise around the fence.

Our trapping and shooting efforts are not about hating cats and foxes, but about loving our native wildlife and doing everything possible to keep their populations strong. Please support our work managing the threat of feral cats at Arid Recovery. There are many ways you can get involved: you can volunteer, become a Friend of Arid Recovery, come out on a spotlighting tour, join one of our community events or support our work by donating or adopting a bettong or bilby.

Written By Hugh McGregor, in partnership with the University of Tasmania and National Environment Science Programme. 




Seed Predation Paradigm Shifts in Australia

Admin Aridrecovery - Monday, November 14, 2016

Animals which specialise in eating seeds are known as seed predators. In the desert, their preferences for specific species of seeds can change the number and types of plants in an area by removing seeds from the bank they grow from.

In many countries mammals are the main seed predators, followed by ants then birds. In Australia, ants are considered the most important seed predators, and mammals are considered unimportant. The role of Australian mammals as seed predators is largely unknown because they were lost before we understood how they interacted with seeds, plants and soils. Our understanding of seed predation in Australia was therefore built in areas which are devoid of native mammals.

Now these mammals, once common around Australia, are only present in places like small islands or in secure fenced reserves. The recent establishment of strong populations in fenced reserves provides the opportunity to question their role as seed predators.

At the same time that native mammals declined, Australian desert landscapes became dominated by weedy shrub species and grasslands declined. This phenomenon, known as shrub encroachment, is a symptom of land degradation. There is no known seed predator for weedy shrub species, although they mostly grow in areas that lack mammals.


Shrub encroachment. On the right hand side of this fence you can see many more shrubs. On the left side, much more grass (grey patches). Interestingly, we find lots of small mammals on the left, but none on the right.

I studied seed predation in native mammal reserves, including Arid Recovery, to determine if Australian mammals are important seed predators, especially of weedy shrub species. I placed trays of weedy shrub seeds inside reserves where mammals are common and outside where mammals are rare. After two days I counted the number of seeds left in the trays. I used tracks at the trays and photos taken by motion sensing cameras to determine which animals were eating the seeds.

Native mammals were the main predators of weedy shrub seeds and ate many more seeds than ants. The main seed predators inside the reserves were native hopping mice and the Burrowing Bettong, a small rabbit-sized marsupial closely related to kangaroos. 


A burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur). Burrowing bettongs were once common on the mainland and are now only found in fenced reserves or small islands. Photo credit Nick Tong.

My research indicates that paradigms on seed predation in Australia should be reconsidered to include mammals. I found that native mammals are important seed predators in Australia, and their decline may have contributed to shrub encroachment. This research demonstrates that projects aimed at restoring Australian native mammals may provide unexpected benefits such as natural weed control.

Written by Charlotte Mills, PhD candidate, Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW.

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.

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

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.

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. 

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