Spot-tailed quolls return from the brink of local extinction in far north Queensland

A secretive native animal that was feared all but gone from the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland has surprised and delighted researchers in promising numbers.

Spot-tailed quoll – spotted dasyurus – is the second largest carnivorous marsupial in Australia after the Tasmanian devil and there are two recognized subspecies found throughout eastern Australia, stretching from far north Queensland to Tasmania.

A 2020 James Cook University (JCU) study found that quolls had completely disappeared from parts of their former range in the humid tropics, and had declined to very low numbers in areas such as the Atherton Tablelands.

Using hidden cameras, volunteers from the Australian Quoll Conservancy (AQC) have recorded more than 20 quolls in Danbulla National Park, near Lake Tinaroo.

2 female quolls, one of which is standing while the other watches
Two young female quolls photographed by AQC in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.(Supplied: Australian Quoll Conservancy)

AQC President Alberto Vale explained that the number of quolls had not necessarily increased substantially, but that the use of technology allowed more quolls to be recorded.

“Quolls are very secretive and unless you look for them, you won’t find them,” he said.

“We attract the animals, for which we have permits, and then we can monitor their numbers through cameras with motion sensors.

“You just can’t expect someone coming from Brisbane or Townsville to do a month of research and come back with a pattern of population numbers in just a month.”

Capturing the vision, not the quolls

The AQC team records the quolls by strategically placing non-invasive motion sensor cameras around the national park behind low hanging lures.

The recorded vision and photos show the quolls standing up to grab the lure.

Two juvenile Spot-tailed Quolls looking at a lure at night
Two juvenile Spot-tailed Quolls watch a lure on the Atherton Tablelands.(Supplied: Australian Quoll Conservancy)

Vision can then determine the sex, height, pouch development, and approximate age of the quoll.

The cameras stream to a server in real time, which means sites are not touched and quolls don’t need to be captured.

“We don’t touch them, we don’t use cages, we don’t do anything that would interfere with the species and that’s one of the best ways to study them,” Vale said.

Populations under threat

The spotted-tailed quoll has undergone a “substantial decline in range and abundance since European settlement,” according to the Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water, with many populations “fragmented and isolated.”

Two quolls standing together trying to reach a lure that is hanging from a tree
Juvenile spotted-tailed quoll siblings photographed in Danbulla National Park in 2021.(Supplied: Australian Quoll Conservancy)

James Cook University Associate Professor Dr Conrad Hoskin was lead author of the 2020 study that found a worrying decline in the spotted-tailed quoll in far north Queensland.

“It’s good to see that there is evidence that they are breeding in the Tablelands,” he said.

“The numbers have certainly declined in the last 20 years to very low numbers. It’s great to see that there is now evidence of juveniles; it will be interesting to see in the next few years if they make it to adulthood.”

“Us [JCU] we have another estimate next year, so it will be interesting to compare the numbers then.”

Hoskin said there were several threats to quoll numbers, but surprisingly feral cats were not among them.

“Cats and quolls avoid each other. A cat may attack a young, but females protect the young,” he said.

“These are strong, sizable animals; a cat wouldn’t mess with a full-grown quoll.”

Roads and toads biggest threats

According to Hoskin, the biggest threats to quolls in the Tablelands were cars and cane toads.

A cane toad sits on a hand in front of a dark background
Poisonous cane toads are one of the threats facing spotted-tailed quolls in far north Queensland.(ABC: Alex Hyman)

“There are a large number of toads that breed in Lake Tinaroo,” he said.

“We are concerned that quolls eat toads and could be poisoned”

“The other threat to spotted-tailed quolls is roadkill. We certainly see some roadkill in the upper Gillies Range.

“Road traffic is a big problem for male quolls that roam off the tablelands during the breeding season in search of females.”

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