The mammal fauna of the Sir Edward Pellew island group, Northern Territory, Australia: refuge and death-trap

Woinarski, J. C. Z., Ward, S., Mahney, T., Bradley, J., Brennan, K., Ziembicki, M., and Fisher, A. (2011) The mammal fauna of the Sir Edward Pellew island group, Northern Territory, Australia: refuge and death-trap. Wildlife Research, 38 (4). pp. 307-322.

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Context: Australian islands have provided a major conservation refuge for many native mammals; however, conversely, island populations may also be highly susceptible to the introduction of novel threats. Nearby islands subject to different arrays of threats or different timing of arrival of those threats may provide a natural experiment, offering particular insight into the relative impacts of different threats to Australian mammals more generally.

Aims: The present study sought to document the native mammal fauna occurring on the main islands of the Sir Edward Pellew group, Northern Territory, and the changes in that fauna over a ~50-year period, and to seek to identify those factors that have contributed to such change.

Methods: In different combinations, the five main islands (and three smaller islands) were subject to standard wildlife survey methods in 1966–67, 1988, 2003, 2004–05, and 2009–10. Sampling procedures were not identical in all periods; however, a measure of abundance (trap success rate) could be calculated for all sampling. This conventional survey approach was complemented by documentation of ethno-biological knowledge.

Key results: For many species, these islands held populations of biogeographic or conservation significance. However, there has been a major loss or decline of mammal species from most islands. Extirpation is difficult to prove; however, we consider it most likely that the important regional populations of brush-tailed rabbit-rat (Conilurus penicillatus), northern quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus), northern brush-tailed phascogale (Phascogale pirata), common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) and canefield rat (Rattus sordidus) have been lost from these islands, and that northern brown bandicoot (Isoodon macrourus), western chestnut mouse (Pseudomys nanus), pale field-rat (Rattus tunneyi) and long-haired rat (Rattus villosissimus) have been lost from most of the islands on which they formerly occurred. Some species–island combinations are known only from the ethno-biological record, and the loss of these populations probably mostly occurred in the period 30–50 years ago. Many other declines and losses occurred in the period between the second (1988) and third (2003) survey. The loss of the northern quoll from Vanderlin Island occurred in 2008. No single factor unambiguously accounts for the declines, although the introduction of cats (Felis catus) provides the best fit to the pattern of decline. A notable exception is the extirpation of northern quoll on Vanderlin Island, which is closely linked to the colonisation of that island by cane toads (Rhinella marina).

Conclusions: The Sir Edward Pellew group of islands have lost much of their formerly high conservation significance for native mammals over the past 50 years, mostly because of introductions of cats, and to a lesser extent, natural colonisation of the islands by cane toads.

Implications: The present study has provided some insight into the relative impacts of a range of factors that have been considered as possibly implicated in the decline of native mammals on the northern Australian mainland, with most support being offered here for a primary role for predation by feral cats. The study has also demonstrated the need for better quarantining of islands with significant conservation values. The comprehensive natural colonisation of these islands by cane toads offers a further lesson, of most importance to managers of islands in north-western Australia currently just beyond the range of toads.

Item ID: 19590
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 1448-5494
Keywords: cane toad, conservation management, ethno-biology, extinction, feral cat, island biogeography
Date Deposited: 18 Jan 2012 02:09
FoR Codes: 05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050211 Wildlife and Habitat Management @ 30%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050202 Conservation and Biodiversity @ 40%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050201 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Environmental Knowledge @ 30%
SEO Codes: 96 ENVIRONMENT > 9605 Ecosystem Assessment and Management > 960501 Ecosystem Assessment and Management at Regional or Larger Scales @ 30%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9608 Flora, Fauna and Biodiversity > 960899 Flora, Fauna and Biodiversity of Environments not elsewhere classified @ 70%
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