marsupials

It's time to spring into action!

Spring is upon us! Days are getting longer, the sun is shining, and we’re all slightly coming out of your winter’s torpor with a boost of energy. And so are the animals and plants around you. Blossoming trees surround you and awake your senses with their vibrant colours and smells; birds are getting out and about, busy accumulating nesting material and fighting for suitable habitat like tree hollows ahead of the breeding season; possums can be seen at night moving from tree to tree with little backriders, and macropods’ joeys might be seen waving hello from the comfort of their pouches. As you get outdoors more, you will most likely start noticing these critters, and some of you will witness their struggles to get by in environments such as busy cities.

A swamp wallaby joey taking a peek at the outside world from its mum's pouch.  Image: Elodie Camprasse

A swamp wallaby joey taking a peek at the outside world from its mum's pouch. Image: Elodie Camprasse

As good as it feels leaving cold and rainy days behind, spring puts an increased pressure on wildlife emergency response services as they try their best to address emergencies linked with this sudden buzzing of life. The good news is there are things you can do to help during this challenging time, in the areas you frequent every day. With spring comes an increased responsibility to help native wildlife get by, as Rowan Mott elegantly reminded us with his article “On death road”. If we are to keep the animals that surround us thriving, this is a crucial time to get involved.  As an emergency response operator for Victoria’s largest wildlife rescue organisation, there are pieces of advice I provide every day in spring to animal lovers that can’t stand to watch animals end up in dangerous and sometimes unexpected situations.

If you are a wildlife lover, you might have been excited about getting birds nesting in your yard, or in the parks you frequently enjoy. Little chicks can be blown out of nests in cases of bad weather, and left vulnerable at the bottom of trees. Unless they are injured, the best thing to do if accessible is to grab a container and poke a few holes at the bottom for drainage, put some leaves and twigs in it and secure the makeshift nest on the side of the nearest tree before putting the little ones back in there. That way, they will be off the ground and safe from predators but they will still be within sight and hearing distance of their parents, which will keep on caring for them as soon as they feel that it is safe to do so. This is the best chance of survival for these birds who still need their parents to feed them and teach them the necessary skills to survive in the wild, which cannot be replicated in care very well. Don’t worry about touching the nestlings, as the idea that the parents will abandon them if you do is actually a myth - birds have a terrible sense of smell and won’t be able to tell!

A magpie chick on the ground.  Image: Wildlife Victoria

A magpie chick on the ground. Image: Wildlife Victoria

A bit later in the season, you might come across “fluffy”, cheeky birds on the ground. They sometimes show inquisitive behaviours and approach humans as if “asking for help”, or keep on flapping their wings as if “distressed”. This behaviour is the equivalent of your morning work-out: they are building strength in their wing and chest muscle so they can get traction and take off. These are called fledglings and they need to be on the ground for periods of time, the lengths of which depend on the species and the availability of food. This is all part of their normal learning process as they learn to fly from the ground up. You may have noticed this behaviour in magpies, for example, as well as in miners and rainbow lorikeets, which are birds commonly found in urban and suburban areas.

The best thing to do, if the bird you come across is uninjured, is to let it be. Whether you notice or not, the parents are usually around keeping an eye on their little ones, teaching them how to navigate busy roads and avoid predators. Once again, their chance of survival is increased by being kept with their parents in their natural environments, as opposed to taking them to vets or carers. So now you know: no bird-knapping!   

You might have feared for duck families travelling from their nesting sites to the nearest body of water on busy roads and wished you could grab them all and relocate them to safety. As scary as it sounds, wildlife rescuers tend not to intervene unless they are injured, because they usually make the matter worse. Ducks can become stressed easily, and mother ducks can indeed run into traffic and get killed or altogether decide to abandon their fluffy ducklings because of the stress associated with an anticipated capture. Besides, the ducklings need to make the journey with their parents in order to learn which direction to go in and how to behave on the way.

A tawny frogmouth youngster cuddling with its parent.  Image: Nalini Scarfe

A tawny frogmouth youngster cuddling with its parent. Image: Nalini Scarfe

Birds are not the only ones that get in trouble during spring. Although joeys can be found in marsupials’ pouches at any time of the year, spring coincides with a peak of births and so it becomes even more crucial to check pouches of animals found dead on the side of the road. If you feel comfortable doing so, it is always a good idea to check that no fur baby is left behind, or to call a wildlife rescue group to do so. If dead animals have spray paint on their bodies, it means that the job has already been done.

Little possums are frequently found on the ground and, if the mum is nowhere to be found, should be picked up and kept warm so they don’t suffer from hypothermia. It is always a good idea in these cases to take the little ones to the nearest vet clinic or local shelter free of charge so they can be fed and kept alive. This way, they have a chance to be rehabilitated. At this stage, they are harmless and can easily be put in a box or wrapped up in a blanket.

A ringtail possum joey.  Image: Elodie Camprasse

A ringtail possum joey. Image: Elodie Camprasse

Lizards and echidnas are other animals that start becoming more active in spring and for which we start receiving more calls. They are usually basking in the sun or looking for food and if uninjured, should be left alone. It is encouraged to keep the disturbance associated with children and pets to a minimum so the animal feels safe enough that it can move around and find its way back to where it came from. Most calls we get about these animals are from people surprised to see them in suburban areas, but unless they are injured, we cannot legally move them, as we risk getting them lost. This is especially true for species such as echidnas, which could then be prevented from finding their way back to their burrow to take care of their babies.

The other reason why we get calls about these animals is pet attacks. At this time of year, responsible pet ownership is even more crucial than usual, as many harmless critters are out and about and are still learning who to trust and who to avoid. I would encourage you to keep pets inside, especially at night, or put a bell on their collar to avoid the deadly encounters we hear about too often.

The damage pets can do to native wildlife.  Image: Wildlife Victoria

The damage pets can do to native wildlife. Image: Wildlife Victoria

So as you can see, it’s time for you to spring into action and help wildlife! You can educate yourself and the people that surround you. If still in doubt, feel free to call a wildlife rescue group. Let’s work together to keep wildlife happy during this demanding time of the year. 

For more information on assisting native wildlife, please visit Wildlife Victoria's website or call them on (03) 8400 7300 to report a wildlife emergency.


P1220178_cropped.jpg

Elodie Camprasse

Elodie came to Australia where she recently completed a PhD in seabird ecology at Deakin University, after studying marine biology in Europe. She is passionate about the natural world and its protection. She is also a dive instructor and Emergency Response Operator at Wildlife Victoria.

You can find her on Twitter at @ECamprasse.


Banner image courtesy of Elodie Camprasse.

Capturing the Wonder of Marsupials

From symbiotic relationships with plants to family lessons on hunting, Australia's marsupials are a diverse and unique group of animals with a complex set of behaviours to boot. However, despite being icons of Australia, many people cannot recognise more than a koala, kangaroo or a possum. Indeed, there's many things about marsupials that Australia's scientists are yet to uncover. 

Filmmakers Dan Hunter and Ed Saltau have been working around the clock over the past few months to put together a three-part series about these amazing creatures, and the important role they have in Australia's ecosystems: ‘For us, that was a really exciting prospect. We’re both really passionate about Australia’s marsupial fauna and we’re very aware of many of the challenges they face.’ Dan and Ed's brief was simple - to make a series about marsupials. This allowed them to take the series in the direction they wanted, explaining that they ‘used the opportunity to share some really novel and exciting science stories about marsupials.’

With a focus on uncovering some of the secrets of Australia's more cryptic and less-known marsupials, Dan and Ed tried to cover as much as possible: ‘We cover the evolutionary history of marsupials, how some marsupials survive and thrive in the desert, specialised movement and reproductive strategies... In the final episode called “Marsupials on the Brink”, we explore some broader ecological concepts, such as trophic cascades and how we might be able to use marsupials to assist with achieving biodiversity conservation goals, by rewilding for instance.’

An important focus for the series was to dispel the myth that marsupials are simply a primitive, subordinate version of placental mammals: ‘We were keen to demonstrate that marsupials are a... highly specialised version exquisitely suited to the challenges they face for life on our vast and varied continent.’ This meant focusing on adaptation such as torpor, which helps marsupials get through tough weather, and diapause as a method for maximising reproduction. It's these special adaptations that make marsupials so unique, and ultimately provide an endless amount of stories to tell through film.

Despite obtaining around 80% of the series' footage from the ABC archives, there was still plenty of filming to be done: ‘As you might expect, all the easy animals to film, like kangaroos and koalas, have been filmed to no end.’ Consequently, Dan and Ed's desire to delve into the lives of some lesser known marsupials took them all over Australia over a six-month period. They explain how their ‘epic quest to share some of the natural history of savannah gliders, northern hairy-nosed wombats and Gilbert’s potoroos for instance, took us from central Queensland, to the top end of the NT and way down in the deep south-west of WA.’ 

As the pair racked up the frequent flyer miles, they were also able to tick off a number of “world firsts” for marsupial film-making. Much of this was thanks to the special conversion of a camera to film in infra-red, so they could observe nocturnal behaviour: ‘We captured the first footage of northern hairy-nosed wombats filmed naturally in the wild. We spent five full nights at a burrow waiting for these guys to emerge. We also filmed Gilbert’s potoroo which has never been done before and captured a previously unknown behaviour of the savannah glider.’ But Dan says we'll have to watch the series to find out exactly what happens.  

Of the sequences they can talk about, a couple in particular stick out for Dan: ‘We have an epic sequence of a hunting stripe-faced dunnart which goes on to teach her babies about the ways of the world. We even found footage of the blind marsupial mole and we have incorporated some very cool research which suggests they may have originally evolved in rainforest habitat.’ 

Dan and Ed were also keen to explore some of the more recent marsupial-related science in their series, such as the complex relationship between fig trees and brush-tailed rock-wallabies: ‘It’s always challenging to communicate often complex processes with limited time and footage and then trying to make this flow visually.’ But, they're both big on using film to communicate science more generally, suggesting it ‘may be the ultimate tool to link science information and a general public in an interesting and accessible way.’

However, there were times when film couldn't quite get across certain concepts, so the pair came up with a different approach: ‘We’ve teamed up with our good friend and animator extraordinaire, Lindsay Horner, to help share some of the more complex concepts in fresh and interesting ways. We're pretty happy with how this has worked out.’

Both Dan’s and Ed’s science backgrounds were incredibly helpful in this process. Indeed, they've noticed a trend in scientists branching out and using their other skills to communicate their work, such as film, photography and art. As someone who traverses both science and film, Dan thinks that ‘science communication will do well to capitalise on the many different talents of scientists out there keen to share science in less conventional ways.’   

Ultimately, they hope that the passion conveyed by some of the people that assisted them with filming rubs off on viewers: ‘We were blown away by the passion of the people working on these lesser-known species. In the case of the Gilbert’s Potoroo, Dr Tony Friend [of] WA Parks and Wildlife is tirelessly dedicating himself to ensuring the tiny remaining population has a fighting chance. It's quite inspiring really.’

The Wonder of Marsupials will be screening on France 5 and ABC later this year. 

All images by Daniel Hunter and Ed Saltau. 


Billy Geary
Billy is the Science & Conservation Editor at Wild Melbourne. He is a wildlife ecologist interested in predator-prey interactions and invasive species management.

You can find him on Twitter at: @billy_geary

Antechinus: Boom and Bust... Mammalian Style

If you’ve ever ventured out to rural areas, seen a small critter scurry across the veranda or through some bushes, and thought ‘Was that a mouse?’ - think again, because it may not have been!

 

Meet the Antechinus, also known as the Marsupial Mouse. Charismatic and energetic, Antechinuses are found throughout our countryside’s undergrowth and are one of our most underappreciated marsupials. At the root of this is the fact that the Antechinus is too often mistaken for the common mouse. In reality, however, the Antechinus has much more to offer…

The Brown Antechinus ( Antechinus stuartii  ). Image: Ian McCann / Museum Victoria

The Brown Antechinus (Antechinus stuartii ). Image: Ian McCann / Museum Victoria

Like their bigger, more ferocious Dasyurid cousins (such as Quolls and Tasmanian Devils), Antechinuses are carnivorous. They tend to feast on as many insects and bugs as is possible in their short life span, which is generally only a year or two depending on their gender.

 

It is this short life span that makes the Antechinus such a special creature. Being semelparous (only breeding once in their lifespan), these small marsupials live life at a hundred miles an hour. The males live for around a year, dying off in August after a mating season of approximately one month. This is what is so extraordinary about this creature:  the sheer stress of mating causes their immune system to shut down about two weeks after the breeding season. The result is that every male in the population dies off at the same time - a trait far more common in insects than vertebrates.

Agile Antechinus ( Antechinus agilis  ) and young. Image: Bruce Cowell (www.brucecowellphotographer.com.au)

Agile Antechinus (Antechinus agilis ) and young. Image: Bruce Cowell (www.brucecowellphotographer.com.au)

It is this very boom and bust nature of their life cycle that makes the Antechinus one of the most unique mammals on the planet. Of the six Antechinus species, the most commonly found are the Agile and the Dusky Antechinus, simply because they are so inquisitive. It’s not uncommon for one to be found scurrying around a kitchen looking for treats! So next time you see a creature scurry off into the bushes, don’t assume it’s a mouse. Rather, spare a thought for one of our state’s most curious and fascinating small mammals.