Big Desert update 2

I’ve just returned from a glorious two-week family holiday in sunny north Queensland. How I’ve missed the place, so much cool wildlife everywhere! Among the highlights were spotting a male cassowary with three chicks (my son is currently obsessed with these oversized birds), watching platypus swim from our front veranda on the Atherton Tablelands — if you’re looking for a biologist’s paradise you can’t go wrong here — and taking the kids spotlighting for NQ’s arboreal mammals. We missed out on tree kangaroos, alas, but we did see green ringtail, lemuroid, and Herbert River ringtail possums, coppery brushtail possums and long-nosed bandicoots. And at age five, Rohan seems to be well on his way to a successful career in field ecology, spotting the eye-shine of many possums himself.

But enough on holidays; what I’d like to update everyone on is the first results to roll in from our Big Desert work. As I’ve written previously, this is an incredibly remote and largely unstudied region, so there’s much to be discovered and learned. What have we found so far? Well, I’ll let the video, below, do most of the talking, but what’s most exciting is that we’ve confirmed there is a dog population in the park, and some individuals appear to look very much like dingoes. We always suspected this, but it’s nice to have positive confirmation. Another interesting result is that goats were not recorded on any of the cameras so far, as compared to the Murray Sunset National Park, to the north, where goats are very abundant, but dogs/dingoes are absent. It’s early days, the habitats of Murray Sunset and the Big Desert / Wyperfeld region are somewhat different, and I’m sure we’ll find some goats in the region soon enough, as they’ve been recorded there. But, it does suggest dingoes may be playing a role in keeping goat numbers down, as we know they do from other studies conducted in other parts of Australia .

Some may remember the Victorian Government recently reviewed the evidence for the existence of big cats; the legendary Black Panther. Well, we may just have found it ourselves! (second-last clip in the video). On a serious note though, cats appear to be relatively common, and great variation exists in their morphology (as seen on the videos). Cats are known to be a major factor behind the extinction of many native species, and new research also shows how they have large impacts on wildlife through the spread of toxoplasmosis. We’re keen to understand more about the role of foxes and dingoes in suppressing cats and therefore disease transmission, but more on that later…

No rest for the wicked. I’m off to Belfast next week to attend the 11th International Mammalogical Congress. I’ll be speaking about the dingo barrier fence and co-chairing a symposium on trophic cascades, ecological restoration and conservation of mammals. I’m really looking forward to a week of listening to mammal research from around the world, and perhaps just a wee Guinness or two as well.

4 thoughts on “Big Desert update 2

  1. Lynette Watson

    Always lifts me to read your updates. Opportunities galore for further studies on the so misunderstood role of dingoes in wild ecosystems. Most of those animals detected your camera trap when it activated, if their reaction is any guide. Are the cats frequenting the same site as the fox and dingoes?

  2. Euan Ritchie

    Thanks Lyn, I’m glad you’re getting something out of the site. Wonderful to get your feedback and you’ve got the honour of first comment!

    To answer your question it’s really early days, but cats and dogs are not being found at the same sites so far, and there’s far fewer foxes in Big Desert as compared to Murray Sunset, where there is no dogs. But, this is where it gets complicated. I suspect foxes are doing a really good job of cat control in M.S. So, if anything all our early work shows is that a diverse predator guild may be what we want, depending on conservation and management aims. But as I said, early days. I’m in this one for the long haul…

  3. stevenbody

    Hi Euan, I have just discovered your blog and have enjoyed reading a few of your posts – thanks! I work at an Environmental Education Centre in NSW and was wondering what baits you were using for the footage from the Big Desert. We use wildlife cameras and are always on the lookout for new strategies for attracting animals. It looked to me like it was buried?

  4. Euan Ritchie Post author

    Thanks Steven. Glad you’re enjoying it and it’s of some use, please spread the word! As for baits, we’ve found by burying them (only just under the surface) it tends to keep animals interested for longer and may spook them less, as the area looks less ‘unnatural’. We soak some cloth (chemical wadding – holds scent for a longer time than cotton wool) in tuna oil, place it in a canister (with lots of air holes) then this is pegged down just under the surface. We then also spray some tuna oil on the surrounding area (surface of the ground) and a stick with feralmone (a synthetic lure in a can), as an extra attractant.

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