Kangaroo Island dunnart
The Kangaroo Island dunnart (Sminthopsis fuliginosus aitkeni) is only found on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. It is endemic to KI and has been listed as 'endangered' under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999).
Prior to the 2019/20 bushfires, the population of KI dunnarts was thought to be less than 500 and was entirely restricted to the western end of the island. Approximately 96% of their known habitat was then destroyed by the fires.
Why is the KI dunnart in trouble?
Major threats to the KI dunnart include:
- wildfire and inappropriate fire regimes
- Phytophthora cinnamomi dieback
- land clearing, degradation and fragmentation of suitable habitat
- predation by feral cats and native predators.
The Kangaroo Island dunnart is listed as critically endangered by The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is also listed as ‘Endangered’ under both the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972. It is believed that there are fewer than 500 KI dunnarts left.
What is the KI Landscape Board doing to help?
The KI Landscape Board’s KI Dunnart Project aims to better understand where dunnarts are found on the island, identify immediate and long-term threats to their survival, and manage key threats to the species.
The team is surveying remaining unburnt habitat on western Kangaroo Island, as well as burnt sites where KI dunnarts were detected before the fire. Eventually, the team will also survey in unburnt parts of the island, where KI dunnarts were recorded historically on both public and private lands.
This work, funded by the Australian Government’s Environment Restoration Fund, will also implement key management actions identified in the 2011 Recovery Plan and the 2019 draft Conservation Advice for the Kangaroo Island dunnart.
The KI Landscape Board is also working closely with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife to give the species the best possible chance of recovery.
Some of the dunnarts captured on camera, one with a brown tree frog (Litoria ewingii) - bottom right image
How do we find KI dunnarts?
The team is using a well-established, reliable survey method known as a drift line, which is generally used with pit-fall traps. However, this project only aims to detect dunnarts, not catch them, and so traps have been replaced by motion-activated cameras.
These cameras passively monitor wildlife as it passes by. They are motion-activated and infrared (near invisible to the naked eye), and take a series of images when an animal moves across the cameras field of view. Drift line fences are constructed of a 30 cm high and 30 m long section of flywire mesh, which encourages animals to move along it and in front of the camera. This has been found to be the most effective technique for detecting KI dunnarts (Hohnen et al. 2018) and has been standardised so that survey effort is consistent all sites. The sites are then surveyed for 50 days. The drift line fence and cameras are then removed and relocated to a new site to continue building our knowledge of the dunnart’s distribution.
The survey technique is also highly efficient at detecting other species, with data collected assisting other projects to assess biodiversity recovery after the fire.
Feral cats and dunnarts
Predation by feral cats poses a formidable threat to native wildlife. Following the bushfires, there is little vegetation left for shelter and food and feral cats travel large distances to hunt in the burnt area.
This project is reducing the number of feral cats on the western end of KI through a variety of control methods. This will reduce the pressure on dunnarts and other native animals while the vegetation is regenerating.
New feral cat control methods are planned to complement existing cage-trapping efforts, including specialised detector dogs, ‘Felixer™’ grooming traps and shooting. All traps are checked regularly and feral cats are humanely destroyed.
Trials using Curiosity® cat baits will also help refine feral cat control methods in fire affected landscapes and optimise the control techniques used. The team is already gaining a better understanding of how effective different feral cat control methods are in the fire-affected environment, which will only improve the efficiency of control efforts.
The KI Dunnart Team will continue to survey new areas across the island and to monitor and protect sites where dunnarts have been detected. They will be working primarily in the west but will also investigate suitable habitat further east in the hope that more dunnarts are detected. This information will help inform future conservation strategies for the species.
Controlling feral cat numbers will remain the highest priority of the project and the KI Landscape Board over the next few years.
As part of a joint initiative between NPWSSA and the Atlas of Living Australia, all of the camera trap photos from the KI dunnart survey sites are now available on-line for citizen scientists to help look through and identify which animals are present.
If you would like to help out and get involved with a bit of citizen science input, please head on over to https://volunteer.ala.org.au/Bushfire-Recovery-Projects and help us ID some animals.
KI Recovery Team
In addition to the KI Landscape Board, this project is overseen by the recently established KI Dunnart Recovery Team. This team includes expertise from the Department for Environment and Water, conservation groups like KI Land for Wildlife, the National Environmental Science Programme, the Australian Government and Zoos SA.