Australia is famous for its fabulous menagerie of fantastic fauna, including many species that are unique to the great southern continent and have little respect for the rules of nature that apply elsewhere (yes, platypus, you egg-laying mammal, we are talking about you).
Beyond the headline-hogging predators of the spider, snake, shark and crocodile worlds, and the familiar friendly furry faces of marsupials such as the koala and the kangaroo, however, are many lesser-known species that quietly get on with their extraordinary lives at the bottom of the planet. Among these are some stars waiting to be discovered, such as the quokka and the quoll—and the latter has made the nature news Downunder twice this week.
An undeniably cute little critter, the quoll resembles a possum that’s been moonlighting as a painter and decorator, its fur all splattered with white splodges. Like possums, quolls are marsupials and live a largely nocturnal life. Unlike their gentle tree-hugging cousins, however, this surprisingly ferocious beast is a committed carnivore, with feeding habits similar to the Tasmanian devil—another near relative—and possums can find themselves on a quoll’s dinner menu.
Although there’s a healthy population in Tasmania, the eastern quoll was thought to have been extinct on the Aussie mainland for the last five decades, after the introduction of red foxes and other aggressive competing species, with the last confirmed sighting dating to a Sydney suburb in 1963.
However, alleged sightings do occur and recently a stuffed eastern quoll was given to the National Parks and Wildlife Service in the New South Wales Town of Gloucester. The animal, nicknamed ‘Fluffy’, was originally picked up as fresh roadkill near the World Heritage–listed Barrington Tops National Park in 1989, and DNA tests have confirmed it’s unlikely to have come from Tasmania, with a genetic make-up more similar to other preserved specimens from the mainland.
Dr Todd Soderquist, threatened-species officer with the Office of Environment and Heritage, told the ABC that the discovery proved the eastern quoll had survived ‘way, way beyond what we would have thought of as the extinction period.’
As a result, scientists will begin investigating the possibility that there are more eastern quolls in the region, using resources from the NSW government’s Saving our Species programme to mount remote cameras and conduct a survey of the bush.
Dr Soderquist said Barrington Tops was large and remote enough to have sheltered an undetected population. He did warn, however, that many people mistake the tiger quoll (which is known to survive locally) for the eastern quoll, a species he described as ‘one of the cutest animals around’.
And if there is a resilient wild population out there, they will soon have some relatively close neighbours, because yesterday five eastern quolls were released into a woodland sanctuary in the north of the Australian capital, Canberra. In total, 14 will be let loose at Mulligans Flat this week, in an attempt to reintroduce the species to an ecosystem that has been missing them for half a century.
“They’ve been absent from the mainland for about 50 years, and probably in the Canberra region more like 80 or 90 years,” Australian National University professor Adrian Manning told media. “Obviously they’re important in the ecosystem, so bringing them back will be a really important part of our project.”
Gregory Andrews, Threatened Species Commissioner at the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment, tweeted a series of photos, saying: ‘Thank you #Tasmania so much for sharing your eastern quolls so they can come back home to mainland Australia’.
The reintroduction of the quolls comes after the 2012 release of a population of bettong, an animal that disappeared from the mainland over 100 years ago for similar reasons to the quoll. A number of bird species and the New Holland mouse have also been reintroduced into the reserve in recent years.
“We see it as an outdoor laboratory, where we test reintroductions and restoration, and work out the ways to rebuild ecosystems such as the woodlands,” Professor Manning said.