USC project searches for elusive marsupial

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USC project searches for elusive marsupial

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USC Lecturer in Wildlife Ecology Dr Scott Burnett

15 March 2017

A USC researcher is on a mission to secure evidence of one of the smallest members of the kangaroo family – the threatened long-nosed potoroo.

USC Lecturer in Wildlife Ecology Dr Scott Burnett said the elusive marsupial remained a “complete mystery” despite known populations living on Fraser Island and in the Maleny hinterland.

“They seem to have almost disappeared from the coastal environments of these regions,” he said. “We don’t know where they are, how many there are, what threats they face or how their populations have changed over time.”

Dr Burnett recently joined forces with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service to attempt to capture the potoroo on film, using almost 20 heat-activated camera traps located at strategic points across Fraser Island.

They failed to record any creatures during the two-week period, however Dr Burnett said he was not giving up on eventually sighting the potoroo (Potorous tridactylusv) which had been rarely seen in South-East Queensland since the 1970s.

“If they were too easy to find, it would take all the fun out of it,” he said.

Later this semester he will supervise USC Master of Science student Alina Zwar as she attempts to define the distribution and habitat of the potoroo population in the Maleny hinterland as part of her research thesis.

Tracking the rabbit-sized creature, which hops like a kangaroo with its front feet tucked into its chest, is a challenge as it hides and rests during the day, under the cover of dense leaves, and emerges at night in search of food.

Dr Burnett has a secret weapon in his bid to entice the potoroo to reveal itself – truffle oil.

“Truffle-like fungi, or underground mushrooms, are a favourite food of the potoroo so we use truffle oil to attract them to the front of the camera traps at night,” he said.

One of the first sightings of the long-nosed potoroo was made in 1836 by naturalist Charles Darwin on his expedition to Australia on the Beagle. Darwin is recorded as describing the specimen “as big as a rabbit, but with the figure of a kangaroo”.

Dr Burnett said the only photographic evidence of a long-nosed potoroo on Fraser Island was taken a few years ago by a camera trap of a dingo walking with a potoroo in its mouth.

“We do know they are on the island as they have been found in the stomachs of dingoes that have died, and in dingo scat.”

Dr Burnett said potoroos were important to forest ecology because they helped to disperse the spores of underground mushrooms, and truffles were critical for the nourishment of eucalypt trees.

— Clare McKay 

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