Forgotten Fauna Part 17: Quoll discovery near Beachport a rare but welcome reminder of our missing wildlife

The recaptured Spotted-tailed Quoll. Photo by Frank Pao-Ling Tsai.

In a flurry of activity late last month, word spread fast of news of a Spotted-tailed Quoll being captured in what seemed like the most unlikely of places – a rural property situated on the South East coast of South Australia, between Beachport and Southend. The owner of the property, Frank Tsai, might already be known to some SA-based readers who frequent farmers markets where he sells his locally produced smoked trout and other products.

If you have read the news coverage about this particular encounter, then you will be aware of the broad details. To recap, Frank thought his chickens were being terrorised by a feral fox or cat, only to discover that the culprit was another species altogether – the Spotted-tailed Quoll (aka Tiger Quoll) – Dasyurus maculatus. The animal escaped from his makeshift holding pen, but thankfully a photo taken by Frank proved the species’ identity, before the animal was captured again the following night. From there, the 3.3 kg male animal was temporarily cared for by the SA National Parks and Wildlife Service, and, after a vet check and treatment for sarcoptic mange, was released back into the wild.

It is rare for regional environmental stories to make the capital city news, but this story really captured the imagination of people far and wide, including overseas. A nice overview is provided in the Channel 7 News story below.

Although this is the first confirmed (i.e. physically validated) wild record of a live animal in the South East region of SA since a specimen was collected near Lucindale in 1896, there have been many other more recent observations of this cryptic species in South Australia – especially throughout the early-mid 1900s. Most of these fascinating encounters appear simply as stories in old newspaper articles, with the rarity of the Spotted-tailed Quoll seemingly giving people a reason to share their tales.

Among these stories, a letter to the editor (see below) by Mr K. B Mack – of a sighting from the River Murray near Barmera in 1958 – is notable because it also produced a specimen that is now in the collection of the South Australian Museum. This location in the mallee along the river is just as remarkable as the recent record near Beachport.

An article from Page 5 of Walkabout, the Journal of the Australian Geographical Society, Vol. 25 No. 2 (1 February 1959).

You will note here the early colonial name for the Spotted-tailed Quoll, then commonly referred to as the “Tiger Cat”. Their close relative, the smaller and originally more abundant Eastern Quoll, was then also known as the “Native Cat”.

Back to more recent times in the South East region, and during my time working for the Environment Department for the SA Government in Mt Gambier between 1999 and 2011, occasionally other sightings would emerge. For example, a couple of unofficial sightings of a Spotted-tailed Quoll by a bulldozer operator were shared with me, dating from the 1970s when broadacre land clearing was still happening as a staggering rate in the South East region of SA. I recall that the animals were seen broadly in the Reedy Creek/Avenue/Conmurra areas during large scale land clearing, which are situated inland of Kingston SE and Robe. This is a part of the region where comparatively little native vegetation remains today.

Cat Swamp, in Hackett Hill Native Forest Reserve, named after the “Tiger Cat”, or Spotted-tailed Quoll.

I also recall there was a record of a sighting passed on via ForestrySA staff, previously the Woods and Forests Department, from the Mt Burr Forest in the early 1980s. In fact, Hackett Hill Native Forest Reserve even has a feature named after quolls, the suggestively named “Cat Swamp”.

Given that the most recent capture occurred in a near-border region of SA, where the state border has no logical relationship to bio-geography or the distribution of species, it is also important to have some idea of what is going on in adjacent areas of Victoria. In this regard, it is fortunate that the level of land clearance in the South East of SA is not mirrored in areas immediately over the border in western Victoria. Here, the timing and patterns of land development left some much larger areas of forest, woodlands and heathlands in-tact, including within State Forests and National Parks.

In addition to more numerous records of the Spotted-tailed Quoll from the 1950s, 60s and 70s from this zone, there have continued to be a trickle of sightings over the past 20-30 years, including from Lower Glenelg and Cobboboonee National Parks, as shown below in the maps compiled using data held by the Atlas of Living Australia. The map on the left shows all records since European colonisation, while the map on the right shows the trickle of records since 2000. The Grampians records are of a suspected captive escapee that was observed in the wild for a few years, and further east of this image, there have also been a few fragments of evidence collected that indicate the species continues to persist in the forests of the Otways.

Distribution of Spotted-tailed Quoll records held in government databases in the southern SA/Vic border zone. The map on the left shows all historic records, while the map on the right shows records since 2000. Source: Atlas of Living Australia.

Needless to say, the species is now very rarely encountered in this zone, which forms the western edge of its national range.

In addition to these official records however, and like the many newspaper accounts referred to earlier, I am also aware of some other sightings that haven’t made it onto the government databases in the near border zone of western Victoria. For example, a neighbour of mine at Mumbannar saw a Spotted-tailed Quoll near the Princes Highway about 10 km inside the Victorian border in the late 1990s, and a little further east, a neighbour of NGT’s at Mt Vandyke has seen the Spotted-tailed Quoll on two occasions in the past decade near the Cobboboonee National Park.

Hopefully, samples taken by National Parks and Wildlife staff will be able to use genetics to shed some light on the origin of the recently captured animal in SA – noting that dispersal of a young male from this zone of recent sightings in western Victoria is not out of the question for a species that is known to be capable of covering large distances.

Now, if we take another trip back in time, an interesting article published in January 1887 gives us a sense of the relative abundance of some of the different species of wildlife encountered by an experienced hunter in NSW in the late 1800s, prior to the arrival of the fox:

A Typical Australian Bushman

The following experiences of an ‘old hand,’
Mr. B. Hawthorne, written by himself for the
Cumberland Times, if not instructive, will prove at
least interesting : —
This veteran says : — I am the only real Australian
hunter, and I have destroyed more kangaroos,
wallabies, and dingoes than any other man in
New South Wales, namely, kangaroos, 13,444
(shot with Henry rifle), 25,347 wallabies, 518
dingoes (gun and poison), 219 snakes (from one
foot to 13 feet long), tiger cats 59, native cats
1015, eagle hawks 320, and horses 495.

Spotted-tailed Quoll. Photo by Lucia Griggi, at the Conservation Ecology Centre, Cape Otway.

If we set aside the obvious bravado of Mr Hawthorne for a moment, but accept that his numbers are accurate, it is noteworthy to see that by his estimation, he destroyed roughly 20 Eastern Quoll individuals for every Spotted-tailed Quoll he encountered.

As a coarse measure of relative abundance, this illustrates the trend that is seen time and time again in the early accounts, presumably as a result of the species having an extremely large home range and being able to persist at low densities. These factors actually make the Spotted-tailed Quoll a very difficult species to actively manage for in the wild, and many knowledge gaps remain, as indicated by both the National Conservation Advice and the National Recovery Plan.

The irony of the remarkable recent sighting of the Spotted-tailed Quoll is that this species continues to hang on, in places where its once much more common relative, the Eastern Quoll, has been long extinct in the wild on the mainland. Indeed, this is why NGT are working with our partners in the SW Vic Eastern Quoll Hub, to plan for the future use of our network of predator-proof safe havens – including Mt Vandyke – as the basis for an experimental return of the Eastern Quoll to the wild in SW Victoria.

To close, and upon reflection about the recent Spotted-tailed Quoll record – isn’t it amazing how this has suddenly brought this species back into the consciousness of people in a part of their range where they have been long forgotten?

It is actually a great reminder of how important it is to focus our attention across the full geographic range of threatened species and I think also highlights that the Spotted-tailed Quoll on the mainland west of Melbourne – despite being overlooked as a priority zone in many past strategies and action plans for the species – maybe still has a fighting chance…

PS – Oh and by the way, if you think you might have quolls in your area, then the NSW Government has produced a handy guide for ensuring your chickens remain safe, which you can download here, or see in the pdf viewer below.


Mark Bachmann