I spend almost all of my time working in Australia on the San Diego Zoo’s koala project (see previous post, Koala Fieldwork: Helping Hands), but I have recently been introduced to other unique Australians. This week I traveled to east Arnhem Land in northern Australia to the home of the Wanindilyakwa people: Groote Eylandt. This large island (about 30 miles or 48 kilometers across and 50 miles or 80 kilometers long) lies in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and it is some of the most remote country in Australia. The island is home to the unique local indigenous people as well as one of the only intact natural populations of the critically endangered northern quoll Dasyurus hallicatus.
The people of this land are unique: they have lived here for centuries, they have their own unique language, and they have an amazing cultural history that links them to all the animals and plants of their environment. I traveled with my colleagues from the Queensland University of Technology and the University of Queensland to work on a project designed to protect the local environment from the threat of the cane toad, which (luckily) has not reached Groote Eylandt, and to study the amazing northern quoll. We flew to Darwin in the Northern Territory, then climbed into a smaller plane that took us across via Nhulunbuyand over the Arafura Sea to Groote Eylandt, where we met the team from the Anindilyakwa Land Council.
The northern quoll is a ferocious predator that weighs about 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms) but which certainly punches above its weight. It’s the smallest of four quoll species in Australia, and although it was once widely distributed across the north of Australia, now only patchy populations remain as the toxic cane toad, which represents a likely meal to most quolls, has invaded its territory. The toxin of the toad is fatal to quolls, and grave fears are held for the stability of the top end’s ecosystems as quoll populations are decimated by the toad’s advance.
Fortunately, Groote Eylandt is currently toad free: something the local people are very keen to perpetuate. However, recently more boat and air traffic between the mainland and Groote Eylandt has meant more opportunities for toads to “hitch a ride,” and concerns for the pristine nature of Groote Eylandt are high.
Our group has established some sensors—the same units we use at St. Bees Island to monitor the bellows of our koalas—to keep an ear out for the toads. We hope these units will provide an early warning system near the water bodies of the island so that if toads do arrive, areas can be quarantined and action taken to, it is hoped, eradicate them before they become established.
In parallel, we are monitoring the ecology and population dynamics of the quolls. Like St. Bees, where we have a pristine environment in which to work, Groote Eylandt is unique because it hosts this natural and isolated population of quolls, so our work here is not impacted by many of the forces that might affect other quoll populations, especially the impact of toads.
There are other parallels between the studies: other than the remote and beautiful nature of the locations, we are using vhf tracking to locate the quolls and investigate their spatial dynamics and breeding behavior. Like St. Bees for koalas, Groote Eylandt is a sanctuary for quolls, so the people of Groote Eylandt see quolls regularly. They know their ferocious hunting habits and their penchant for using houses and sheds as dens during the day. Some people even report that if they do not put food away, quolls will come into their houses and steal it!
It is exciting to be a part of a program aimed at preserving such an interesting and critically endangered species, and it is good to be assisting with a species that does not have quite the public profile that the koala has and learning from the local people at the same time. All these animals have a role to play in our environment, and it is up to us to make sure they are here for the future. Who knows what key role they may play in the ecosystem on which we depend?