What can be better than working in nature with adorable animals? This August I had an opportunity to spend 3 days helping out in a student project on the long-nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus) population at Tibinbilla Nature Reserve (TNR). I had a great experience learning new things and meeting some really nice people.
Long-nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus)
Long-nosed potoroo is a small marsupial distributed along south eastern coast of Australia, from Queensland to eastern Victoria and Tasmania. It inhabits in coastal heath and dry and wet sclerophyll forests with dense understorey and occasional open areas. Its diet includes underground fruiting, fungi, roots, and insects. It is very important to the native ecosystem as it helps to distribute fungi spores that are essential to form mycorrhizae on the roots of various plants. The species is currently listed as Near Threatened under IUCN red list, but vulnerable nationally and in various states. The major threats to this species include habitat loss, predator by European Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and Feral Cats (Felis catus), residential and industrial development and increasing fire frequency.
Background of our long-nosed potoroo project
Due to the significant role long-nosed potoroo plays in native forests, there are lots of efforts putting into the conservation of this species. Institutions such as Taronga and Healesville Sanctuary have been breeding and reintroducing the potoroos back to their natural habitats. TNR started participating in the conversation of long-nosed potoroos 7 years ago by introducing them into enclosures to breed them and help them adapt to the wild. Currently, most potoroos in TNR are kept in the Eucalyptus Forest (as shown on the map), but you may also find them in other places around TNR. The rangers there supplement their diet but they also ensure that the potoroos are finding their own food. After 7 years of breeding, TNR lacks the data of the current potoroo population. For future planning and management, it is necessary to know more about their genetic information, gender distribution, health, etc. Therefore, Our fellow student Holly took on the project with Sam as her supervisor, and I was lucky enough to participate in this interesting project.
This map shows how we set our traps in the Eucalyptus Forest. We set 40 traps in 20 trap points on both sides of the walking track and near the feeder. On our field days, we arrive TNR at 9:00 am and set our traps, we finish setting our traps at around 10:00 am, then we collect the traps at 2:00 pm and usually finish at around 4:30-5:00 pm. The primary aim of the study was to determine the abundance and genetic diversity of the potoroo population, which involved identifying gender, DNA sampling (taking a little bit of tissue from the tip of their ear) and microchipping them. As the people from TNR also wanted to know more about their health condition, we also recorded their weight, foot length, testicular length and observation of pouch young. By analyzing the foot length in relation to body weight we can get information about the condition of the animal as weight alone does not provide this. We also tried to record their body condition by feeling their muscles and fat near their hip, but there was not many past studies about this technique so the result accuracy was uncertain.
I came up with a few questions about the future planning of this potoroo population. First of all, what will we do with this potoroo population? With human supplementing the diet of potoroos and being kept away from predators, it is expected that the population will grow beyond the capacity of the enclosure in the future. Are we considering relocating them and reintroducing them back to the natural environment? When will be the most suitable timing for reintroduction? The problem of this potoroo population in TNR is that they are obviously very active during the day, which I assume is because of their feeding program during the day. Given that human activities have influenced the population so much, how can we make sure the population is ready to be reintroduced back to their natural environment?
Jennifer, our contact in TNR gave me the answers to my questions. Yes, they intend to reintroduce or translocate the potoroo in the future. Right now they are in phase 1 of their study, and they want to make sure that the population is growing and has adapted to the environment in Eucalyptus Forest. After learning more about the genetic diversity and assess their suitability for reintroduction, they can consider what to do next. If the population has sufficient genetic diversity, they can work towards phase 2 of their study: restoring more natural behaviors. This may be done by retraining current animals or putting next generation in a different scenario. For example, using the feeders at night to see if this changes behavior. If the population does not have sufficient genetic diversity, then TNR may need to introduce a new population of potoroo and revise their methods over last 7 years.
It was a great experience learning new things about how to collect data from wild animals in the field, about the management plan of a threatened animal, and to work with people with a passion for the environment. I would like to thank everyone worked with me in this project, Sam, Holly, Jennifer, all other rangers, and volunteers. I hope this project can be a huge success.
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IUCN red list – Long-nosed potoroo: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41511/0
Sam’s website: http://sambanks.weebly.com/
Species Profile and Threat Database of long-nosed potoroo: http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=66645
Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve website: https://www.tidbinbilla.act.gov.au/
Useful articles about long-nosed potoroo:
Bennett, A. F., 1993. Microhabitat use by the long-nosed potoroo, Potorous tridactylus, and other small mammals in remnant forest vegetation, south-western Victoria. Wildlife Research, 20(3), 267-285.
Claridge, A. W., Tanton, M. T., Seebeck, J. H., Cork, S. J., & Cunningham, R. B., 1992. Establishment of ectomycorrhizae on the roots of two species of Eucalyptus from fungal spores contained in the faeces of the long‐nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus). Austral Ecology, 17(2), 207-217.
Norton, M. A., French, K., & Claridge, A. W., 2011. Habitat associations of the long-nosed potoroo (Potorous tridactylus) at multiple spatial scales. Australian journal of zoology, 58(5), 303-316.