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.


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.


Quoll scat-venger hunts!

Kimberley Solly - Monday, October 12, 2015

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Written by Kimberley Solly, Scientific and Education Officer


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. 

Winter Bettong Trapping at Arid Recovery

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

Scott Elliott writes about his experience during the largest bettong trapping event Arid Recovery (and possibly the world!) has ever seen.

Standing at the top of a sand dune with a full moon hanging over my head, the task at hand seemed simple enough.

“Just place the bag over the end of the trap, lift the door and it should run in,” explained Arid Recovery’s ecologist, Cat Lynch.



Molly, one of AR's volunteers, looks after a small baby bettong during the winter bettong trapping at Arid Recovery
Photo by: Catherine Lynch

“It” was a feisty bettong and my job was to ensure that this furry critter made its way safely into a bag for processing back at camp.

Since the introduction of bettongs onto the Arid Recovery reserve in 1999 their numbers have exploded. In response to this, Arid Recovery is undertaking a large-scale translocation program to keep the bettong population at sustainable levels.

Back on the sand dune, my hands stubbornly refused to manipulate the trap door open, a condition of the near-freezing temperatures which engulf the reserve during winter.

With one eye on the capture bag I managed to gently coax the cantankerous bettong out of the trap and into the awaiting bag.

This operation was repeated throughout the evening in an all-night ritual of trapping, processing, resetting traps and selecting new capture sites. The bait of choice for this assignment was the trusty peanut butter sandwich however these delicacies also proved alluring to the resident populations of bilbies and western barred bandicoots.
All animals were returned to the central camp building, affectionately known as “The Atco”. Here they are weighed, measured and tagged pending their release onto Stuart Creek Station – about 20 kms north from the main Arid Recovery reserve.

An average night was delivering around 40 bettongs and large numbers of bilbies, bandicoots and the occasional stick-nest rat.

Students and volunteers from Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Roxby Downs all made the trip out to the reserve to assist with the trapping program, braving the winter chill.

Few things can prepare you for the brisk arrival of nightfall during wintertime at Arid Recovery. However this winter has delivered unseasonable rains to the reserve providing a rich blanket of annual flowering plants – dotting tones of yellow and white across the landscape.

At the end of a busy week, I leave the reserve with a sense of accomplishment and look forward to future work with Arid Recovery.


See more images of our volunteers and bettongs on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AridRecovery

Bilby Trapping

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

In the first week of February the Arid Recovery Internship students participated in targeting Bilbies for relocation from the second expansion to other areas of the reserve. Generally Bilbies are rather trap shy, and don’t often go for the peanut butter bait balls set in cage traps that are more appropriated for the eager and social Bettongs.

The interns traipsed through sand dunes on the hunt for Bilby burrows, keeping a keen eye for signs of Bilby tracks and diggings. Once a Bilby burrow was located it was time for some manual labour, with the burrow traps needing to be dug deep into the burrow to ensure a secure capture.

Photo 1: Intern Anni digging in a burrow trap.

 

The following morning the interns got up bright and early to check the burrow traps before the sun had risen, hopeful that the traps were a success! Wondering around in the dark, guided by a GPS and the light of their head torch, the interns found their burrow traps with a timid Bilby tucked away in the corner. “Discovering a Bilby in a burrow trap is incredibly rewarding, they don’t often go for traps, so to find one is a big deal!” exclaims Arid Recovery intern Katy Read, “It’s a great rush to know that the burrow trap has been a success!”

 

Photo 2: Intern Katy placing a burrow trap.

 

Over a three day trapping period a total of two Bilbies and three Bettongs (who often share burrows with the Bilbies), where captured in the burrow traps. Arid Recovery intern student Anni Walsh quotes, “We’ve really honed in on our skills of identifying Bilby traps and suitable active burrows, its great!”

 

Photo 3:  The finished product- a burrow trap ready to go.

A Cousin Next Door

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

After 80 long years, relatives of the Arid Recovery burrowing bettong have moved in next door.  Once plentiful along the eastern seaboard of Australia, the eastern bettong (Bettongia gaimardi) suffered a fast decline due to foxes, cats and land clearing in the late 1800’s.

Since approximately the mid- 1920’s the eastern bettong has not been seen on the mainland and survived only in Tasmania.  With the recent arrival of the fox in Tasmania and an increase in other pressures, a small population of 30 eastern bettongs were relocated to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, ACT. 

The ACT government, CSIRO and Dr Adrian Manning of the Australian National University’s  Fenner School are working collaboratively on a grassy woodland restoration project.  The project is undertaken at Mulligans Flat and Goorooyarroo Nature Reserve and it is hoped that at some stage next year, this small group of eastern bettongs will be released at Mulligans flat.

Eastern bettongs are often referred to as “ecosystem engineers” as they play a pivotal role in digging up the soil which increases the flow of nutrients and water into the soil.  The ecologists working on this reintroduction are hoping to determine the impact this reintroduced species may have on the woodland and if they may be used an ecological restoration tool.

Findings from this type of study can be beneficial not only to other woodlands along the eastern coast but also conservation projects across Australia.  Although it may seem the information these sorts of studies and organisations such as Arid Recovery provide are quite specific to the ecosystems or animals they are dealing with, aspects of it can be applicable to a number of different things.  Look at our unique floppy top fence, it is used in different ecosystems across Australia and even in other countries!  Conservation projects and initiatives such as these share not only their successes but also their failures with others in order to improve the protection of our species for years to come.

BHPB Matched Giving Support, where does it go?

Developer 2 (MM) - Wednesday, August 13, 2014
BHP Billiton's Matched Giving Program contributes $10 per hour of volunteer work undertaken by BHPB employees towards the cause of their choice, and also dollar for dollar on many donations given by their employees.  The value of monies raised this quarter by Arid Recovery volunteers through the BHP Billiton's matched giving program is priceless.

This Autumn quarter will have a 'feral focus'.  Funds raised via the Program will help with maintenance of our existing remote monitoring system and feral eradication of the Red Lake Expansion.  March, April and May are the 'golden months' for feral predators as young cats and foxes begin to emerge. Hence it is a crucial time to maintain our feral control programs and monitoring to enhance our knowledge of these amazing but devastating feral predators.

Arid Recovery would like to give special thanks to all the volunteers who have given their time to assist our cause this past quarter, in particular those that assisted with annual trapping, and in this quarter we highlight those involved with feral animal control.

Good Signs For Translocated Bandicoots

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

The five recently translocated bandicoots (WBB's) from Faure Island, WA have settled into their new surroundings.

Western Barred Bandicoot arrives in SA

They are building their characteristic nests under leaf litter, actively exploring their specially designed release pen and all three females have pouch young.  The WBBs' will be provided with supplementary food and water over the next 12 months to promote breeding and once numbers have built up they will have access to the wider Arid Recovery Reserve.  These animals will provide vital genetic diversity for Arid Recovery's current population of WBBs which will hopefully lead to an increase in population size and aid in the national recovery of this threatened species.

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