Kangaroo Island Dunnart

© Brad Leue/AWC

Quick Facts

  • SCIENTIFIC NAME: Sminthopsis griseoventer aitkeni (listed as Sminthopsis aitkeni)
  • FAMILY: Dasyuridae
  • IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS Critically endangered
  • NATIONAL CONSERVATION STATUS: Endangered
  • STATE CONSERVATION STATUS: Endangered in SA
  • SURVIVING POPULATION: Exact numbers unknown, estimated <500
Ki Dunnart Brad Leue Awc 2 © Brad Leue/AWC

What is AWC doing?

Extensive wildfires in late 2019, and again in early 2020, burnt 95 per cent of the remaining habitat of the Kangaroo Island Dunnart. Fortunately, the dunnart has persisted in unburnt patches of vegetation, but the population has been reduced to perilously low levels.

AWC is working with local landholders and conservation organisation, Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, to protect this population by establishing a safe haven within a feral cat-proof fence in the Western River area of Kangaroo Island.

This initial stage of the project, enclosing 13.8 hectares of critical refuge, was completed in February 2020. AWC provided expertise, staff and equipment to help Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife achieve this project that was planned pre-fire. AWC feral animal control officers have been on the ground helping control feral cats at the Western River Refuge and surrounding area. AWC ecologists have supported the Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife team to establish threatened species surveys across unburnt private properties in the hope to locate more populations of the dunnart and manage feral cat numbers.

The next stage of the project will be to expand the feral cat-proof fence to protect a 370 hectare refuge to support a viable population of the dunnart over the long term.  

Ki Dunnart Brad Leue Awc 4 © Brad Leue/AWC

Threats to the Kangaroo Island Dunnart

Historically, the main threat to the Kangaroo Island Dunnart was clearing of native vegetation to farmland, which has occurred across half the island. Wildfires in the remaining native vegetation is a serious threat, as most records of the dunnart are from long-unburnt vegetation. Feral cats occur on Kangaroo Island and can be presumed to hunt more effectively in recently burnt vegetation. The fenced feral cat-free area, constructed by AWC at Western River Refuge in partnership with local landholders and conservation organisation Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, is therefore critical to helping save the species.   

Critically Endangered

 

Description

The Kangaroo Island Dunnart is a small carnivorous marsupial, with a head-body length of 80 to 90 millimetres and a slightly longer tail (85 to 105 millimetres). Females weigh 10-15 grams (which is less than an Australian 50 cent coin), while males weigh 20 to 25 grams (roughly half a golf ball – about the same as a house mouse).

It has grey fur that is dark on the back and pale on the belly, a thin grey tail and pale – almost white – fur on the hands and feet. It has a slender pointed muzzle and large ears.

The Kangaroo Island Dunnart was initially considered a race of the Common Dunnart (Sminthopis murina), but following taxonomic revision was listed as a unique species (Sminthopsis aitkeni). Subsequent genetic analysis has shown the Kangaroo Island Dunnart is closely related to the Grey-bellied Dunnart (Sminthopsis griseoventer), which occurs on the mainland on the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia, as well as in south-west Western Australia. However, as Kangaroo Island has been isolated from the mainland for 10,000 years, the Kangaroo Island Dunnart is considered a distinct taxonomic entity. It is the only dunnart on Kangaroo Island.

The species has only been known to science for 50 years.

Ecology

Remarkably little is known about the Kangaroo Island Dunnart, as it has proved difficult to catch in pitfall traps (the standard method). When the recovery plan was written, in 2011, the dunnart had been captured a grand total of 35 times. The deployment of remote camera traps has resulted in additional records in the last few years across public and private conservation land.

Like other dunnarts, the Kangaroo Island Dunnart feeds primarily on small animals, mostly invertebrates (spiders, beetles, ants, etc). Within its range, it occupies a variety of native vegetation, both mallee and woodland, sheltering in grasstrees (Xanthorrhoea), leaf litter, and holes in the ground. The available data show that dunnarts forage 200 to 300 metres from their nest sites each night.

Breeding occurs from late spring into summer; like other small dasyurids, males are unlikely to outlive the breeding season, while females may survive a second year. Dunnarts have up to 10 young per litter.

Range and Abundance

The Kangaroo Island Dunnart is restricted to Kangaroo Island, South Australia.  According to the Mammal Action Plan, the range extends over 160 square kilometres, of which 24 square kilometres are considered to be occupied.

Early records were from the eastern part of the island, but all recent records are from the west, which retains significant cover of native vegetation. Most records of the dunnart are associated with long unburnt vegetation.

Historical records from 1969 to 1976 reported that all Kangaroo Island Dunnart sightings from the central and eastern parts of the island were in areas where intensive land clearing was occurring. Its current distribution on Kangaroo Island is restricted to the western end of the Island within Flinders Chase National Park, Ravine des Casoars Wilderness Protection Area and areas of remnant native vegetation on private conservation land to the central west and north west.

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© AWC camera trap
© Pat Webster/AWC

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