Keep your friends close and your enemies closer

By AG Staff 6 July 2017
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A new study has found that by exposing threatened native animals to their enemies, such as feral cats, they are able to develop more diligent behaviours, which may prolong their survival.

EXPOSING THREATENED SPECIES to a small number of predators could teach animals how to avoid attacks in the future, a new study has found.

By exposing bettongs (Bettongia leseuer), or as there colloquially known, ‘rat kangaroos’, to a small number of predators such as feral cats, the Australian marsupial’s defense tactics could evolve and prevent the species extinction. 

After realising that eliminating all feral cats and foxes was unrealistic, scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and University of California Los Angeles wanted to stimulate learning and natural selection in native species. 

Around 352 burrowing bettongs were introduced to a 26 square-km paddock, with four male feral cats, while another group of bettongs were kept in a paddock with no feral cats.

“Previous attempts to train animals to avoid predators have been carried out in laboratories or in captivity, with animals exposed to images, models or real predators. But these approaches rarely improve survival,” said Rebecca West, a scientist at UNSW.

 “We wanted to see if animals could be trained in the wild by controlling the numbers of predators so the native animals had a chance to learn without their population being wiped out. This is the first time the technique has been tried in the wild.

The researchers found that the bettongs exposed to their feral predators were harder to catch, demonstrated more hiding behaviours and showed wariness while feeding, while the bettongs in the isolated paddock were yet to exhibit these diligent behaviours.

“It might take many generations before predator exposure training will improve survival in the wild but our results suggest a positive step in the right direction to allowing our native threatened species to co-exist with introduced predators into the future,” Rebecca explained.

The study was published in the journal British Ecology Society.