Cute canines lend a paw to find rare marsupial

A silver-headed antechinus in Kroombit Tops National Park (WWF Australia)

IT might have a ferocious appetite and a sex drive to match, but the endangered silver-headed antechinus has become the new poster boy of post-bushfire wildlife recovery.

In a May-June search funded by WWF Australia, researchers from the Queensland University of Technology located 21 of these little marsupials in Bulburin National Park.

Along with the Blackdown Tableland and Kroombit Tops national parks, Bulburin is a safe haven for this species, which scientists only formally identified in 2013.

But in 2019, Bulburin lost more than 3,000 hectares of rainforest and eucalypts to fire, leading to fears the silver-headed antechinus wouldn’t survive.

The situation was indeed so dire for the tiny mammal that the federal government placed it on a priority management list.

QUT expert Dr Andrew Baker said he was pleased with his recent antechinus discoveries.

However, he warned with the post-fire changes to its habitat in terms of weed regrowth and pest impact, particularly that of feral pigs, the species isn’t out of the woods yet.

“The megafires demonstrated that even rainforest areas are now vulnerable,” he said.

“With predictions of drying and more intense fires due to climate change, we’re going to have to work hard to save this species.”

The challenges are compounded by the creature’s ravenous appetite, which sees it taking on insects, spiders and even house mice for a meal.

Making matter worse are the suicidal reproduction rituals of the males, who mate themselves to death before their first birthday due to a surge in testosterone that ultimately poisons them.

WWF Australia funded the search for the marsupial as part of its Regenerate Australia project, a pioneering program designed to rehabilitate areas destroyed by the catastrophic 2019-2020 blazes.

Head of Healthy Land and Seascapes Darren Grover said although images of fire-singed koalas have most captured the public’s imagination, other species like the silver-headed antechinus also deserve attention.

“We can’t let its story be ‘discovered today, gone tomorrow,’” he said.

Handler Jack Nesbitt with sniffer dog Max (Canines for WIldlife)

Specialised sniffer dogs Max and Ash were trained to pick up the scent of the antechinuses and play an integral role in their discovery.

Handlers Lynn Baker and Jack Nesbitt of Canines for Wildlife have years of experience in the dog scent detection of endangered animals and invasive species and other ecological services.

They said the antechinus search was difficult due to the small size of the creatures, who leave no immediate visual clue as to their whereabouts.

Ms Baker said with regard to this particular hunt “we’re relying on our training and our trust in the dogs, it’s in the category of ‘more difficult.’”

“What makes this project special is in these areas there are other antechinus species that are not of interest that live alongside the particularly endangered one,” Mr Nesbitt said.

“With intensive training on the material provided by the researchers, the dogs are actually able to discern between antechinuses that are very similar in a lot of ways.”

Ms Baker and Mr Nesbitt said a firm love of nature and animals drives the species preservation work they do with their dogs.

“There’s a number of aspects to the work we do that are exciting, in particular: investigating the capabilities of the dogs and exploring their uses as a tool to help us conserve these species,” Mr Nesbitt said.

“We’re ecologists by background, and we all have a very strong conservation ethic, so we’re very committed to helping researchers manage an environment that’s under increasing threat,” Ms Baker said.

“And working with dogs is a huge privilege: challenging, interesting and lots of fun.”

Lynn Baker with Ash (Canines for Wildlife)
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Cameron Doody

Cameron holds a doctorate in Studies of the Ancient World from the Autonomous and Complutense Universities of Madrid. He has 4.5 years' experience as a reporter in Spain and 3.5 years' experience as a lecturer in Ethics. Writing from Gawler in South Australia, in Kaurna country, he is passionate about advocating for a more humane economy, digital and workers' rights, freedom of expression, sustainability and multiculturalism. In his spare time he enjoys unwinding with friends and family, playing the piano and helping to make the world a better place.

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