Australia is full of cute animals—wombats, bandicoots, potoroos, echidnas, wallabies, platypuses, quokkas and koalas just to name a few. Now, Chloe Hart at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports we can add—or add back—to that list the eastern quoll, a little spotted marsupial.
In the last week, 20 of the cat-sized animals were flown from wildlife sanctuaries on the island of Tasmania, where they were bred, to Booderee National Park in Jervis Bay, New South Wales, about 200 miles south of Sydney. It’s hoped that the little spotted furballs will breed and increase to about 120 individuals over the next two years.
Elaina Zachos at National Georgraphic reports that the quolls were pretty common on mainland Australia until about 50 years ago. A mysterious disease wiped out a good chunk of the population and non-native foxes gobbled up the rest, wiping out the species in the 1960s. Quolls were able to survive on Tasmania, which does not have a fox population.
AFP reports that after a concerted 15-year-effort to get fox populations under control in Booderee, conservationists thought it was an ideal place and the right time to try and reintroduce the quoll. The animals are fitted with GPS collars and motion-activated cameras will monitor their activity. They will be intensely monitored for the next three months and then regularly monitored over the next three years.
“This is the first time in Australia that a carnivore extinct on the mainland has been re-introduced to the wild. Most of the carnivores lost from the mainland are gone forever, it’s not possible to bring them back, so this is a rare opportunity,” Darren Grover, head of living ecosystems for WWF tells AFP. “For thousands of years eastern quolls played a part in the ecosystem as primarily insect-eaters. It will be fascinating to see what happens when they return to that role at Booderee.”
Despite efforts to control them, there are still a few foxes in the landscape. The quoll reintroduction will be an experiement to see if native carnivores can still survive with low levels of predators still around. “We’ll discover which habitat type they prefer and if Booderee’s extensive fox control programs have been enough," Rob Brewster of partner organization Rewilding Australia says in a press release. “This information could become the blueprint for how to re-introduce quolls to other mainland locations.”
The first two weeks will be the most perilous for the quolls. Though they have been raised to be released and were reared in wild-ish conditions in Tasmania, the trip to the mainland is still stressful. It’s expected that the quolls will lose weight as they begin foraging for food in their new home. That will make them vulnerable to any lurking foxes.
If two other species are any indication, however, the quolls should do fine. In 2014, the long-nosed potoroo was reintroduced to Booderee National Park after being extinct in the area for years, and is doing well. In 2016, the southern brown bandicoot was also reintroduced and it was confirmed to be breeding in the park last summer.
Which gives hope for other reintroductions as well. Australia has the highest extinction rate in the world for mammals, driven by non-native predators like foxes and domestic cats as well as human development. While controlling those predators, like in Booderee, can help, some researchers believe the more sustainable solution is to allow top predators, like the dingo, to take care of the foxes and cats. Some also suggest reintroducing the Tasmanian devil to the mainland, where it was extirpated about 3,000 years ago by dingoes and humans, which could bring some equilibrium back to Australia’s out-of-whack ecosystems.