Quolls off to promising start in Kakadu

By Amelia Caddy April 26, 2016
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Cane toads all but wiped them out, but quolls are now being returned to the landscape with the skills to survive.

NINE NORTHERN QUOLLS have been released into southern Kakadu National Park, in a bid to re-establish a population of the endangered marsupials there.

The quolls have been specially trained not to eat cane toads, which are highly toxic and were largely responsible for wiping out Kakadu’s northern quoll population. They’ve also been trained to be hyper-aware to dingo and feral cat predation – another major threat to the species.

After being released in the Mary River District on Thursday night, radio signals on Friday morning showed that all nine quolls had survived the night.

Northern quoll

The northern quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus), a nationally endangered marsupial, went all but locally extinct in Kakadu National Park after the arrival of cane toads in the region. (Image: Jonathan Webb)

Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews said it was a promising start to a program that hopes to see about 150 of the specially trained quolls released into the area within the next two years.

“The terrific thing is they’ve all found hiding places in the rocky country there, and I’m really confident they’re going to do well,” he said.

Combined with better fire management and feral cat control, Gregory believes the program could see southern Kakadu’s northern quoll population grow to about 500 individuals within the next three to five years.

Training quolls to be ‘toad-smart’ and ‘cat-savvy’

The ‘toad-smart’ quolls were taken from the Astell Island insurance population and trained at the Territory Wildlife Park. There, they were fed low-toxicity juvenile cane toads laced with a nausea-inducing chemical.

University of Melbourne PhD candidate Ella Kelly helped train the quolls, and said it took about a month to prepare them for release.

“It’s a very rapid response – if something makes you sick you’re very unlikely to eat it again, just because of that evolutionary response,” she said.

In previous trials of the method, researchers observed that toad-smart female quolls passed their behaviour onto their young.

“That means that if we train quolls they will potentially pass that training onto their offspring, and we then don’t have to keep releasing quolls indefinitely,” said Ella.

The quolls, which come from a predator-free island, also underwent predator training to try to improve their responses to dingoes and feral cats.

It’s hoped that the training will give the quolls the boost they need to re-establish themselves.

“This project is really about giving them a helping hand in order to maximise their chances of survival,” said Ella. “We’re helping the quolls help themselves.”