In an important milestone for the restoration of central Australia’s lost biodiversity, Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), in partnership with Alice Springs Desert Park, has returned the regionally-extinct Red-tailed Phascogale to the red centre.
This tiny, threatened mammal species has not been seen in the wild in the region for more than 70 years.
A total of 29 animals, including 17 females and 12 males, were flown almost 400 kilometres from a captive breeding program at the Desert Park to the safety of AWC’s 9,400 hectare, feral predator-free area at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary.
The phascogales were released into nest boxes on Monday (22 June 2020) in previously identified release sites in the south-western section of the feral predator-free area. This area is characterised by good shrub cover and connectivity between hollow-bearing desert bloodwood trees, which is similar to known habitats favoured by some of the last wild populations in central Australia.
“Red-tailed Phascogales have not been seen in central Australia for many decades, so their return marks a major new milestone for conservation,” AWC’s Chief Executive, Tim Allard, said.
Half of the phascogales have been collared to monitor their movements and survival rate, but these collars will be removed before the breeding season commences in June. Red-tailed Phascogales have an unusual reproductive cycle, with males dying off from exhaustion within a month of mating, while females live up to three years.
AWC’s Chief Science Officer, Dr John Kanowski, said the data collected from the collars will be invaluable.
“Like many small Australian mammals, Red-tailed Phascogales are highly vulnerable to feral cats and wildfire. They disappeared from central Australia so long ago that we know little about their ecology in the arid zone, and we are keen to monitor them closely after they have been released,” Dr Kanowski said.
“Although the collars will only be on the animals for a few weeks, the data gathered will be invaluable and will show us where they go, what vegetation they favour for shelter, and their rate of survival.
“We are confident that the area we have chosen offers these animals the very best opportunity to adapt to their new surroundings.
“Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the modern world. More than 30 species have gone extinct in the centuries since European settlement. We really don’t want to see the Red-tailed Phascogale become another species confined to the history books.”
Once abundant across much of arid and semi-arid Australia, this tiny marsupial’s range has contracted to the central and southern Wheatbelt region of Western Australia, mainly due to predation by feral cats, fragmentation of its habitat and poor fire regimes which destroyed the large hollow-bearing trees which provide crucial sheltered nest sites.
Red-tailed Phascogales are carnivorous marsupials with mostly ash-brown fur. Feeding predominantly on insects and spiders, males grow up to 15 centimetres, weighing about 60 grams, while females are slightly smaller, reaching on average 11 centimetres and weighing about 43 grams. Their length is almost doubled by their long reddish-brown tail with its brush tip ends in a brush of long black hairs
The founding population of this tranche of phascogales was collected from the wild in south-west WA by AWC and the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions in 2019, before being transferred to the Alice Springs Desert Park.
These animals are their offspring.
It is not known how many Red-tailed Phascogales have survived in the wild as they live in small scattered populations, however, surveys show that their range has diminished. These animals will now be able to thrive and breed without the threat of predation from feral cats at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary. AWC also protects another population of Red-tailed Phascogales at its Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary, 300 kilometres north of Perth.
“This reintroduction of Red-tailed Phascogales to Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary represents a line in the sand – a chance to stop the decline and restore populations of this charismatic Australian mammal,” Mr Allard said.
“We’re helping to rewrite the future – one that spells hope for the species as a whole – and we’re so proud to be part of this story.”
AWC’s reintroduction of threatened mammals at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary is on track to be the most significant endangered mammal reintroduction project ever undertaken in Australia. It will deliver substantial increases in the populations of 10 threatened mammal species, including the Western Quoll, Greater Bilby, Numbat, Golden Bandicoot, Burrowing Bettong, Rufous Hare-wallaby (Mala), Shark Bay Mouse, Central Rock-rat, and the Red-tailed Phascogale.
AWC is now planning to embark on Stage 2 of the Newhaven project, during which the feral predator-free area will be expanded by up to 100,000 hectares. This is a priority project in the Federal Government’s National Threatened Species Strategy, after a Senate Report and a major scientific analysis of mammals (Mammal Action Plan, CSIRO) noted the value of, and need for, large feral-free areas.
Heather Paterson, Communications Manager: 0476 829 523, firstname.lastname@example.org
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