Hope for wallabies so endangered we thought they were extinct

An endangered species of native wallabies has been pulled from the brink of extinction and rescued from the jaws of feral cats, thanks to a groundbreaking trial in central Queensland.

Slanted nail-tailed wallabies were once the most common wallaby in eastern Australia, but by the turn of the 20th century the animals had become so rare that they should be extinct.

Although they were rediscovered in the 1970s in central Queensland, their population remained critically endangered with only 500 people expected to live in the wild by 2015.

Their babies – furry and smaller than a soccer ball – had become targets for a growing feral cat population to the point where more than half of every new generation was killed.

Earlier efforts have caused the population to grow due to wildlife and drought, and Queensland’s latest breeding program cut it off in 2018.

But conservation scientists say there is hope for the species’ survival again, after seeing the largest recorded population increase in a trial of a new protection strategy in a nature reserve in central Queensland.

Slanted nail-tailed wallabies are endangered and were considered extinct for most of the 20th century.(

Provided: Alexandra Ross, UNSW

)

First of its kind and a breakthrough

Conservation scientists from the University of NSW fenced off a 10 hectare area in Avocet Nature Reserve south of Emerald, where they herded vulnerable young wallabies and allowed them to grow and feed in a secure enclosure for cats.

This is a strategy called head-starting, which involves protecting endangered animals during their most vulnerable times.

A dark haired woman in a black tank top smiles.
UNSW PhD candidate Alexandra Ross. (

Provided: UNSW

)

“Previous studies have shown that more than half of these young flanged nail tail wallabies were killed by feral cats before they could reach adulthood,” said Alexandra Ross, senior researcher and doctoral student.

“But when you look at the number of adults, the survival rate goes up to 80 percent – which shows that height is a good predictor of survival.

“Sometimes it’s not necessary to protect every animal in the population, it’s enough to protect these vulnerable little individuals.

“That’s what the head does.”

The fuss had previously helped increase reptile and bird populations, but the strategy had never been used before with land mammals.

“We were really impressed. The population (of nail tailed slanted wallabies) has more than doubled in three years,” Ms. Ross said.

Two wallabies in the dry grasslands
Slanted nail-tailed wallabies were previously Australia’s most common Easter wallaby, but by the turn of the 20th century the animals had become so rare that they should be extinct.(

Provided: Alexandra Ross, UNSW

)

Professor Mike Letnic, who was also a researcher on the project, said the departure allows animals to live as they would in the wild while eliminating the threat of feral cats.

“For the most part, they fend for themselves,” he said.

“We grow them from football size to medicine ball size before releasing them into the wild, which can take anywhere from a few months to a year,”

Future studies

Ms Ross said her next research project will examine whether the wallabies that were raised in the enclosure retained their natural instinct for survival after release.

“Find out if they are (more) vulnerable to predators … because they were in this initial enclosure for their first stage of life.”

She said the success of the trial could offer conservationists an option to save other endangered species.

“Before that, you might only have had the option of creating a very large sanctuary to protect a species from extinction,” she said.


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