Researchers canvass the Illawarra, Shoalhaven and Hunter regions of New South Wales in search of Australia’s top marsupial predator.
With a pink nose, whiskers and bright white spots covering its small reddish brown body, the tiger quoll, also known as the spotted-tailed quoll, looks more domestic cat-cuddly than ferocious predator.
But this endangered little fella is actually the largest remaining carnivorous marsupial on the Australian mainland. And boy does he bite. Related to the now extinct thylacine (also known as the Tasmanian tiger), the tiger quoll has the second strongest bite of any predatory mammal in the world, beaten only by the Tasmanian devil. Think hyena, lion, even sabre-tooth tiger – the tiger quoll’s jaws pack more punch than all of them.
Once plentiful across eastern Australia and Tasmania, these tree-climbing possum hunters are now listed as endangered, with estimates of around 20,000 individuals left in the wild thanks to land clearing, habitat destruction and introduced species.
Up until a few years ago, they were thought to be extinct in certain pockets of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. But in 2014, a group of UOW researchers discovered a thriving population hiding in the Watagan Mountains, near Newcastle.
“It was wonderful to rediscover quolls in the area and to let everyone know that quolls are here, they live with us, and we can live harmoniously with them,” says Dr Katarina Mikac, from UOW’s School of Biological Sciences.
Since the discovery, Dr Mikac and her ‘Team Quoll’ colleagues have been working to track the exact location and numbers of tiger quolls in the Hunter region, as well as the bushland that surrounds Wollongong and the Shoalhaven, so that we can best manage the populations and ensure the native marsupial’s long-term survival.
A relative of the now extinct thylacine, the tiger quoll is the Australian mainland’s top marsupial predator and it could be extinct within 10 years.
The importance of this apex predator
On a cold winter morning, we meet Dr Mikac and UOW Biology Honours student Elira Reynolds down a dirt road on the edge of Budderoo National Park, around 100km south west of Sydney, in the Illawarra region.
They’re both kitted up in knee-high leg gaiters for the one kilometre trek out to their research site. “Last time I was in here doing field work, I almost stepped on a tiger snake”, says Elira. Tigers seem to be a common theme here.
As we walk through the overgrown track, Elira and Dr Mikac fill us in on what they have been doing out here – setting up cameras baited with raw chicken necks and sardines in the hope of catching a glimpse of the elusive nocturnal carnivore that has a pouch like a kangaroo.
“I haven’t seen one in real life, only in a zoo. But we’ve caught nine on camera here already. So they are here. They’re just hiding,” says Elira. “Each individual has a different spot pattern, like a fingerprint, so we can easily tell who is who.”
Elira says they’ve caught a few repeat visitors on camera and have named them after characters from classic Australian films The Castle, Muriel’s Wedding, Kenny and Strictly Ballroom. “I liked the idea of making these animals more relatable to people who maybe didn’t know much about the species, but who had seen the movie and could picture quolls as ‘little Aussie battlers’ when they’re occurring in low-density populations.”
“We named Team Quoll’s mascot Dale Kerrigan [after the lead character from The Castle], the first quoll I recorded in Barren Grounds Nature Reserve in 2014 (just up the road from Budderoo). We’ve kept the Aussie battler theme and have since named the new individuals we’ve recorded in our surveys this year ‘Dad’ and ‘Dave’ [characters from On Our Selection] ‘Kenny’ [from the classic Australian mockumentary, Kenny, about a Melbourne plumber who works for a portable toilet rental company], ‘Swampy’ [the eccentric chicken farmer from the film Oddball], ‘Rex’ [from Last Cab To Darwin], ‘Fran’ [from Strictly Ballroom], ‘Muriel’ [from the Australian classic Muriel’s Wedding], and ‘Matilda’ [a reference to Australia’s best-known bush ballad Waltzing Matilda].”
Elira, who started with Team Quoll during her undergraduate studies at UOW, says she fell in love with the domestic cat-sized animal as soon as she started studying them. “The more I learned about them, the more I realised how important they are to our ecosystems and to our other native species.
“If we ever got to the stage where tiger quolls did become extinct, I think it would have a really huge impact. They’re the largest marsupial predator remaining on the mainland and in ecosystems where they do persist, they have a really strong effect on all of the species they interact with – competitors (like foxes and wild dogs and cats), and their prey (possums, birds, rabbits, reptiles), which in turn would affect the local vegetation.”
It’s what’s called a ‘trophic cascade’ and explains the knock-on effects of removing top predators from food webs. The most famous recent example of this is the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, in the US. Wolves were once the apex predator in the world-famous park, but after they were eradicated in the 1920s, local elk populations soared.
“The elk overgrazed the entire park and trampled the river beds, but in 1995, when 41 wolves were reintroduced into the area, not only did they control elk populations, scientists noticed several other surprising flow on effects – bear numbers increased, beavers thrived and songbirds returned. The ecosystem was repaired.
“Everyone loves the wolves!” says Dr Mikac. “Their effect on the ecosystem was huge – they transformed vegetation structure, prey abundance and changed the habitat as a whole.”
A self-proclaimed animal dork
Once a regular visitor to chook pens and backyards around New South Wales, tiger quoll sightings are now rare, apart from the odd unlucky individual that gets hit by a car or the curious night wanderer that ends up in a suburban bathroom.
“Males roam far and wide. The average adult tiger quoll has a ‘home range’ of up to 1500 hectares. That’s about the size of 1500 rugby fields,” says Dr Mikac. “When you see a news story about a quoll, it’s usually a male who’s gone off wandering looking for a female.”
During breeding season (May-July), male tiger quolls produce a deep growl and a loud hiss while roaming around looking for a mate. “It sounds like a koala choking,” Elira says with a smile. Others think it sounds more like a big cat, a tiger, hence the name.
“We don’t want the tiger quoll to go the way of the thylacine, but unfortunately it looks like it is in some parts of Australia. But certainly if Team Quoll and myself have anything to do with it, we’re going to ensure that they’re here to stay,” says Dr Mikac.
For Elira, a self-proclaimed “animal dork”, saving the tiger quoll from extinction will be a life-long pursuit. “I love animals and a huge part of that is conserving wildlife. I think it’s our responsibility as citizens of the planet to take care of the other species that we’re impacting upon. So the opportunity to be involved in conservation, to be interacting with species, to be contributing to knowledge about them, is what gets me out of bed in the morning and I don’t think that’s going to change.
“My true passion is animals and conservation and the opportunity to see those species remaining in the wild and to actually see them in the wild – for it to be possible for me and everyone else to do that rather than only see them in a book or in a zoo. That’s really what I feel like I want to do with my life.”
It’s our responsibility as citizens of the planet to take care of the other species that we are impacting upon.Elira Reynolds
An unusual solution
Some academics have suggested the answer to saving the tiger quoll may lie in adopting them out as pets, however Dr Mikac doesn’t believe this is the right way to go.
“I am not in favour of keeping any wild animal as a pet and especially not the tiger quoll. I hope that stories like this are just popular fiction and another way to introduce this unique creature to all Australians and thinking broadly about conservation and its importance. A tiger quoll’s place is in the bush and not someone’s couch!”
Instead, Elira and Dr Mikac encourage citizen scientists and landholders of the Illawarra, Shoalhaven and Hunter regions to get involved in their research to help save the tiger quoll from extinction.
“I find that when the ordinary person is aware of the tiger quoll, they’re such a charismatic little animal that people tend to fall in love with them,” says Dr Mikac. “Even just having people that are able to recognise a quoll and understand what they are, that they’re in a bit of trouble, goes along way to helping them survive.”
“We’re also happy for the community to contact us and get involved in the research. We need help with camera trapping, with past and present sightings and any other information about them that you might have. We need people to be our eyes and ears on the ground. Elira and I can’t be everywhere, but with help, we can cover a much wider geographic area.
“People see what’s going on in their own backyard and we appreciate the data and information that landholders forward us. Information like tiger quoll sightings, photos and videos are all very helpful to our ongoing research and conservation of the species.”