Feature, News from the Field

Researching cats, fires & eco-engineers for Science Week

17 Aug. 2021
W Lawler/AWC

Science is at the core of AWC’s conservation work. It drives everything we do – from our day-to-day operations, to our wildlife reintroductions, to our leading fire management program and more.

In addition to using existing knowledge, our team of 71 leading ecologists are active in conducting scientific research that is essential for data sharing as well as conservation practices. To date, AWC’s team has published 146 peer reviewed journal articles, books and book chapters. We have also published, collaborated on, or hosted more than 350 research projects.

In celebration of National Science Week (14 – 22 August 2021), we take a look at five recent research projects conducted across AWC sanctuaries and partnership areas:

 

The study studied the dissemination of fruits or seeds in the alimentary canal of digging mammals to determine whether seeds consumed were able to germinate. W Lawler/AWC
The study studied the dissemination of fruits or seeds in the alimentary canal of digging mammals to determine whether seeds consumed were able to germinate.

 

1. Australian mammals are outback gardeners

We know Australia’s native animals are resourceful eco-engineers, but are they also a natural source of seed dispersal?

The study aimed to learn the true conservation potential of native species by understanding whether they have the ability to germinate seeds after consumption. Research was conducted across our Karakamia (WA), Mt Gibson (WA) and Yookamurra (SA) wildlife sanctuaries, where ecologists collected and tested scat samples from five digging mammal species known to consume seeds or fruit.

Read the full study: New evidence of seed dispersal identified in Australian mammals.

 

Foxes and cats were fitted with tracking collars as part of an investigation into how the two species use habitat. W Lawler/AWC
Foxes and cats were fitted with tracking collars as part of an investigation into how the two species use habitat.

 

2. Following cats and foxes in an arid landscape

AWC’s major research program into feral predators is bearing fruit, with the publication of some important findings in a recent paper.

At Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary (NSW) cats and foxes were fitted with stationary collars as part of a wide-ranging investigation into how the two species use habitat. The feral predators were monitored for the first 25 days of each month, with locations recorded at regular intervals.

The tracking data revealed some interesting differences between cats and foxes; for example, cats tend to move around more – the study recorded ranges of up to 164km – while foxes are territorial and will revisit familiar sites. This vital information can be used to guide management plans and enable increased efficiencies in feral predator control.

Read the full study: Space use and interactions of two introduced mesopredators, European red fox and feral cat, in an arid landscape.

 

A new study at Wongalara confirms the impact of cats on small mammals such as Pale Field Rats in Australia’s northern savannahs. W Lawler/AWC
A new study at Wongalara confirms the impact of cats on small mammals such as Pale Field Rats in Australia’s northern savannahs.

 

3. Cats are a key threat to local small mammal populations

A study carried out at Wongalara Wildlife Sanctuary (NT) confirms the impact of cats on small mammals in Australia’s northern savannahs.

The study was set up as a large-scale experiment: four fenced areas were constructed, two of which were accessible to cats. Pale Field Rats were used to repopulate the fenced plots. In places that cats could access, there was no survival rate among the Pale Field Rats. This study provides further evidence that “even at low densities, feral cats can drive local populations of small mammals to extinction”, highlighting the importance of effective feral cat control “…to enable recovery of small mammals”.

Read the full study: Cats are a key threatening factor to the survival of local populations of native small mammals in Australia’s tropical savannas: Evidence from translocation trials with Rattus tunneyi.

 

A study found that mammals are able to survive and repopulate areas faster in low-severity burnt areas. W Lawler/AWC
A study found that mammals are able to survive and repopulate areas faster in low-severity burnt areas.

 

4. Unburnt habitat patches are critical for population recovery after fires

Another experimental set up was used in a study conducted at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary in the Kimberley (WA).

This one also focused on small mammals, but looked at the impact of different types of wildlife, rather than feral predators.

PhD researcher Robyn Shaw caught and tagged Pale Field Rats, then (working closely alongside AWC operations staff) implemented prescribed burns across the study area. The population of Pale Field Rats were checked six weeks and one year after the fire. Ecologists found that within six weeks, Pale Field Rats were captured in unburnt patches of vegetation. One year later, both the vegetation and Pale Field Rat populations recovered across all sites.

The study found that low-severity burns enabled animal survival and facilitated mammal repopulation in-situ. Mammal repopulation following high-severity burns, meanwhile, was significantly slower as it required animals to move back in from neighbouring areas.

This information is vital for informing fire management programs. As the study explains, “building recovery mechanisms into fire management will be vital for supporting the long-term persistence of fire-affected species”.

Read the full study: Unburnt habitat patches are critical for survival and in situ population recovery in a small mammal after fire.

 

 

Purple Crowned Fairywren W Lawler/AWC
Purple Crowned Fairywren

 

5. Strong family ties among Purple-crowned Fairywrens

There has been a flurry of research papers published recently from AWC’s long-term partners, the fairywren research lab at Monash University, led by Professor Anne Peters.

One study looked at the cooperative breeding behaviours of Purple-crowned Fairywrens. The research found that young birds which stick around to assist with domestic duties are especially aggressive when warding of nest predators, but only if they have ‘skin in the game’ and are likely to inherit the nest. When it comes to fairywren families, they’re all in it together!

Read the full study: Context-dependent social benefits drive cooperative predator defense in a bird.

 

Australia’s wildlife needs our help now more than ever. Please support our conservation research projects to help save Australia’s threatened wildlife.

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