Carnivore encounters: Tassie-style

What do you think of when you hear the word “carnivore”? Large, ferocious beasts, like lions, tigers, or wolves? Carnivores are some of the world’s most charismatic species and play an important role maintaining balance in the web of life.

Australia has a unique suite of native carnivores (mostly marsupials), and the island state of Tasmania is no exception. Distinct from the mainland, here there are Tasmanian devils, but no dingoes or introduced foxes. The lack of foxes has made Tasmania a refuge for native species that are threatened on the mainland. Dingoes never made it to the island, but may have contributed to the loss of devils and thylacines (Tasmanian tigers) on mainland Australia at least 1000-2000 years ago. While devils persist in Tasmania, thylacines were hunted to extinction by humans as recently as the 1930s.

Today, Tasmania’s largest carnivores are the Tasmanian devil, two species of quoll, and the introduced domestic cat. A good friend of mine, Rowena Hamer, is investigating these species as part of her PhD. As my own PhD has kept me desk-bound lately, I took the opportunity to venture down south and help with her field work trapping carnivores in the Tasmanian midlands.

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A male spotted-tailed quoll we caught on the first day

Rowena researches the biology of Tasmanian devils and quolls, focussing on their movements and habitat requirements. She also looks at how feral cats (who are a leading cause of the extinction and decline of many Australian native species) live alongside devils and quolls, and what feral cat management means for these native carnivores. Her research forms part of a broader project at the University of Tasmania (in partnership with Greening Australia) which investigates ecological restoration, and as such, focuses on agricultural landscapes.

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Arriving at her farmland study sites, we drive through lush, rolling hills interspersed with remnant vegetation and thriving wetlands. Red-necked (or Bennett’s) wallabies dart across our path, a wedge-tailed eagle soars overhead, and we meet five echidnas on our first day alone. These properties are evidently well-managed, with low sheep stocking rates that have allowed native vegetation to persist, making them ideal sites for studying wildlife.

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I release “Rosie”, a devil we caught on the first day

Despite the beautiful setting, trapping carnivores is nothing glamorous. The cage traps are baited with stinky “seafood basket” cat food and fleshy chicken necks which turn rancid and are crawling with maggots within a few days.

The smelly baits work though, and our first trapping day is a success, catching a spotted tailed quoll, Tassie devil, and feral cat. Having never seen a quoll or devil in the wild, I’m delighted. Aside from being beautiful and fascinating creatures, it’s a satisfying reminder of the abundance and diversity of life in the bush, hidden from human sight. By the end of the week, we’ve caught six devils, two quolls, four feral cats, and a few unexpected extras including two blue tongue lizards, an echidna, and plenty of brush tailed-possums. Seeing and catching so many feral cats is quite shocking, and it’s frightening to think how many native animals they’re eating every day.

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This cat had been caught before and is already wearing a GPS tracking collar

Many of the cats, quolls, and devils we trap have been caught in Rowena’s previous trips, but for those that haven’t, we microchip them, record data on their size and condition, and for some we attach radio-tracking collars to collect information on where they go. For the devils, we also check for cancerous facial tumours, a disease which kills the animals and is threatening devil populations across Tasmania. Being a bibliophile and fantasy geek, Rowena christens the animals we catch with names that are Tolkien themed for the devils and C.S. Lewis themed for the quolls.

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This devil has the facial tumour disease

Rowena still has more devils and quolls to find, but over the course of the next year or so, she’ll build a dataset that tells the stories of carnivore societies in Tasmania, helping to conserve these unique and fascinating species.

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Rowena releases “Prince Caspian”

For updates on this research, you can follow Rowena’s wordpress or twitter feeds. For now, I’m headed back to Sydney, refueled with enthusiasm for my own research on a different Australian carnivore, the dingo.

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