For the first time in over 50 years, tiny eastern quoll babies are thriving on the Australian mainland thanks to a special wildlife sanctuary project.
Strewn with white polka dots and about the size of a small house cat, quolls are deceptively cute until you learn about their sharp teeth. Hit hard by invasive species such as feral cats and foxes, all six species of these native predators have declined on the mainland in the last century.
One of them, the eastern quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus) is even considered extinct on the mainland—although still thriving in Tasmania—as it was last sighted in the early 1960s near Sydney.
Now, thanks to a team of dedicated researchers working on the Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary project, the first lot of locally-born quolls are able to roam a fence-protected wilderness area free from cats, foxes, and rabbits. The sanctuary is located just outside Canberra and is also home to freshly reintroduced Eastern bettongs that had been missing from the mainland for a century.
The first news of quoll breeding success emerged in July, and you can even see some of the pups harassing their mum in a camera trap video published in late September.
"It's been really interesting—since we got the video out, the young ones have been leaving their mum and exploring the sanctuary," says Professor Adrian Manning, chief investigator of the Mulligan Flat-Goorooyarroo Woodland Experiment. "It was actually really rewarding, to see them exploring their home. We're really pleased."
The baby quolls are about five months old now, and the scientists are guessing there are about 25 youngsters exploring their new home.
"One of the people working in our team saw a young one with an insect in its mouth," says Manning, explaining that at this age the babies are weaned from their mother's milk and are starting to hunt on their own.
One of the first quoll pups at Mulligans Flat, captured by the researchers for inspection.
Photo courtesy Adrian Manning
One of the partners of the quoll research project is the Capital Woodlands and Wetlands Trust which organises regular twilight tours of the sanctuary. If you're lucky, that experience could include some of the quoll youngsters as well, although that chance is diminishing as they're getting older.
"They're becoming more wary, more like the adults, so it's almost like they're growing up before our eyes," says Manning.
He explains that the twilight tours can yield all kinds of nice surprises, since the wild animals at the sanctuary don't live according to a special 'tour schedule'. But it also means they're unpredictable.
"Sometimes you will see a lot of sugar gliders, sometimes not. You'll almost always see a bettong, though."
The researchers are now trying to capture the new generation of eastern quolls at Mulligans Flat to get DNA samples and find out their parentage. The quoll population at the sanctuary was established from a half-half mix of wild animals captured in Tasmania, and ones bred in captivity, giving the scientists a chance to see whether their origin makes a difference for the re-introduction strategy.
"We use Mulligans as an 'outdoor laboratory' if you like, to test how best to bring these animals back," explains Manning. "Hopefully one day we can take them beyond the fence."
See more Aussie babies tonight 6.30pm AEDT on Nat Geo WILD Extreme Animal Babies
and find out more here