Male silver-headed antechinus found in Bulburin National Park, Queensland © WWF-Australia / Queensland Aerial

Male silver-headed antechinus found in Bulburin National Park, Queensland © WWF-Australia / Queensland Aerial

The search for the silver-headed antechinus

30 Aug 2021

Keywords
  • bushfire
  • queensland
  • threatened species

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The silver-headed antechinus is surprisingly resilient for a marsupial, often referred to as a ‘suicidal reproducer’. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been pushed to the brink of extinction.

 

“The koala was really the poster child, if you like, of the 2019-20 fires and rightly so” says WWF-Australia Head of Healthy Land and Seascapes, Darren Grover. “Koalas suffered a great impact - devastating impacts in some areas - but there's a lot of other wildlife that also suffered from those fires.”

 

The silver-headed antechinus being one of them.

 

Nearly 3 billion native animals were impacted by the devastating fires that raged over the summer of 2019-20, threatening species in areas previously untouched by fire. “Years of drought and then incredibly hot dry weather means areas that we never thought would burn, have burnt.”

 

Discovered in 2013, the silver-headed antechinus made its home in the wet eucalypt and rainforests of central Queensland, existing on a diet of spiders, cockroaches, bugs and beetles in the thick vegetation of the forest floor. When the megafires swept through this habitat, the silver-headed antechinus was thought to be another casualty of a devastating catastrophe.

 

“There were never a lot of them, and when the fires went through Bulburin, it burned 30% of their habitat. The concern was, this is the largest known population of the silver-headed antechinus. What happened? Have they suffered badly? Have they hung on?” says Darren Grover. “No one knew until Andrew Baker and his team went up there to find out.”

 

Dr Andrew Baker, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Environmental Science at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Stephane Baptista, PhD Candidate finds a female silver-headed antechinus in Bulburin National Park © WWF-Australia / Queensland Aerial

Dr Andrew Baker, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Environmental Science at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Stephane Baptista, PhD Candidate finds a female silver-headed antechinus in Bulburin National Park © WWF-Australia / Queensland Aerial

 

However, at under 12cm in length and living in a relatively large area, the question becomes not only, ‘are they still here?’ But, ‘If they are still here, how do we find them?’

 

Stephane Baptista was one of Andrew Baker's team members who went on the WWF-funded mission in search of the lost marsupial. “My PhD project is looking into the endangered antechinus species - the silver-headed and the black-tailed antechinus,” she says. “We’re trying to explore different kinds of detection techniques to see which ones work better to faster find these species in the national parks where we already know they are. At the same time, we’re trying to map their accurate distribution and potential habitat.”

 

Some techniques proved more fruitful than others. “We used a mix of Elliot traps, camera traps, and conservation detection dogs,” Stephane says. “Through these techniques, we’ve started to find new records of the species where we previously had no idea they could be. We’ve been finding the silver-headed antechinus in so many new sites across this national park. So far, we’ve managed to trap 21 different animals, which is a promising start.”

 

Darren Grover, Head of Healthy Land and Seascapes, WWF-Australia, inspects an Elliot trap - a small aluminium box trap with a foot pedal. © WWF-Australia / Queensland Aerial.

Darren Grover, Head of Healthy Land and Seascapes, WWF-Australia, inspects an Elliot trap - a small aluminium box trap with a foot pedal. © WWF-Australia / Queensland Aerial.

 

“Before antechinus were discovered in the rainforest,” says Darren Grover, “we only had them in wet open forests. It was actually through Steph’s PhD project a couple of years ago that led them to find this population of the marsupial.”

 

But as to the exact number of silver-headed antechinus there are in these areas? Darren Grover says, “It’s almost impossible to tell; I can't give you actual numbers. It's just an incredibly difficult thing to answer, especially for animals that are hard to catch like these ones, which is why the dog teams are so crucial to this sort of work.”

 

Despite such promising discoveries, using these detection techniques isn’t always easy. “There are a lot of challenges involved,” says Darren. “It can be extremely costly.”

 

Fortunately, Stephane Baptista, Andrew Baker and the rest of his team were able to get funding to help them on their mission. “Without the funding, we couldn’t do what we do. [The funding] allows us to have a multi-pronged approach to detection, not just using the Elliot traps that we've been using here but also camera traps and detection dogs. We've been very fortunate to get funding from WWF, the Federal Government (WHBRP Grant), National Environmental Science Program (NESP) and Saving Our Species (SOS) program, as well as on-ground technical support and expertise from members of DES (Qld) and OEH (NSW) and UQ. It just gives you scope to say, okay, everyone come in and let's all do our thing and get really data-rich results.”

 

Stephane Baptista measures a male silver-headed antechinus found in Bulburin National Park, Queensland © WWF-Australia / Queensland Aerial

Stephane Baptista measures a male silver-headed antechinus found in Bulburin National Park, Queensland © WWF-Australia / Queensland Aerial

 

While Andrew Baker and his team were able to determine that the silver-headed antechinus wasn’t wiped out by the fires that tore through the stronghold population of the marsupial, there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure the survival of the species.

 

“Changing vegetation, the threat of predators such as feral cats, the prediction of drying weather and more intense fires due to climate change, all pose a massive threat to this already threatened species,” says Darren Grover.

 

“In a lot of the areas that have been badly burned, it's going to change the vegetation structure. And that could have mid- to long-term impacts. It depends how it regenerates and if it gets burnt again. We need to keep an eye on that.”

 

“We need to not just monitor the species, but help repair the damage that has already been done. Which is where Regenerate Australia comes in.”

 

Dr Andrew Baker, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Environmental Science at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Stephane Baptista, PhD Candidate finds a female silver-headed antechinus in Bulburin National Park © WWF-Australia / Queensland Aerial

Dr Andrew Baker, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Environmental Science at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Stephane Baptista, PhD Candidate finds a female silver-headed antechinus in Bulburin National Park © WWF-Australia / Queensland Aerial

 

Regenerate Australia is the largest and most innovative wildlife recovery and landscape regeneration program in Australia’s history. The multi-year program will rehabilitate, repopulate and restore wildlife and habitats affected by the 2019-20 bushfires, and help to future-proof Australia against the impacts of changing climate. Find out more at www.wwf.org.au/what-we-do/regenerate-australia.

 

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