Mainland Forgotten Fauna Part 15: Eastern quoll insights from the mainland long ago

It has been a while since our last foray into the stories of forgotten mainland fauna (see part 14 here), but this month we are back with more interesting insights into the eastern quoll (or native cat as it was then known) on the mainland before its extinction. I have two interesting items to share this time around…

First up, a story that was prompted by pure chance. Before the sad death of Leila Huebner (nee Ellis) 5 years ago, she donated a number of her documents and reference books to NGT. Some of them have been sitting for a long while waiting for me to get a chance to go through them, which I finally did over the recent Christmas break. In an interesting surprise while sorting, the cover of an old edition of Wildlife: Australian Nature Magazine from August 1945 (when Leila was a young girl) really stood out because it had a picture of a mother eastern quoll and her full batch of youngsters, and a tantalising title beneath it “Native Cats at Home”. I have never seen this before, so I could hardly wait to have a read.

The story was written by David Fleay, an important pioneer of the natural sciences in Australia, who understood the risk of extinction faced by our wildlife. He provides some amazing insights into his experiences with the species and gives us a feel for their dramatic decline:

“Not many years ago in south-eastern Australia one of the commonest animals was the carnivorous but quite dainty little marsupial correctly known as a Dasyure. To all the old-time bushmen it was simply the “Native Cat.”

To all intents and purposes this Eastern Native Cat (Dasyurus quoll) has disappeared from almost the whole of its former range, though it is an extraordinary fact that a small colony still lingers along the Yarra Valley right in Melbourne, extending from Darebin Creek downstream to Studley Park.”

There is a lot to appreciate in this story, which illustrates the importance of sharing observational information in science, so I hope you get as much out of reading it as I did. Despite an earlier precipitous decline (see other reference below) recorded on the mainland, somehow the species hung on for a little longer in the stony-rise country of the Victorian Volcanic Plain in the western districts, and along the Yarra through Melbourne. You can read the full story in the viewer below.


Secondly, coming across this article got me thinking I should also dig out my edition of Frederic Wood Jones’ Mammals of South Australia (1923-25), to gain some earlier insights into what happened on the mainland. He had this to say about the species:

“It inhabited treeless rocky country as well as the more cultivated districts, and everywhere evinced a preference for dwelling around homesteads and in the immediate neighbourhood of chicken runs. Very early in the days of colonisation it was regarded with dislike because of the damage it did killing poultry; but there are many settlers who would now welcome its return in order to keep the mice plagues within check.

The Native Cat is an absolutely fearless animal, and one which possesses all the bold intelligence of the typical predatory carnivorous animal. It is an attractive creature in captivity, and is by no means difficult to handle and to render familiar. Although it will kill and eat poultry, it is contented with far smaller game and probably depends very largely upon insects as its main source of food…

There is no doubt that as a destroyer of mice, rats and young rabbits the Native Cat played an extremely useful part in Australian rural economy, and despite the fact that it was an occasional robber of hen roosts its presence was a real asset to the country.

Its range in South Australia was formerly very wide. On Kangaroo Island it appears to have been always more or less of a rarity; but from the accounts of old wallaby trappers there seems to be no doubt as to its existence on the island. Since the snares set for the wallaby and the opossum are not particularly likely to capture a Dasyure, and as the animal’s skin is of no commercial value, it is not impossible that its scarcity on the island is more apparent than real…

To-day, if it exists at all in this State, it must be an animal of the utmost rarity. Although there is no doubt that the influences which have been at work in the general process of the extermination of the Australian fauna have operated to the full on the Native Cat; it is possible that another factor has come into play during the final scene of its passing. The animal has been trapped, poisoned and persecuted throughout the country; and yet we turn to the case of the European weasel in New Zealand we may learn how little effect these means have on the extermination of an active and intelligent carnivore. The Native Cat, with its cunning and its activity, was well able to look after itself, despite the fact that it was an extremely easy animal to trap.

Its rapid decrease started about the year 1900, and during that and the two following years the so-called “common” Native Cat practically disappeared from South Australia. Much the same thing happened in Victoria and in New South Wales, with the exception of the district immediately round Sydney. It would seem certain that some epidemic disease must have spread through the Dasyures, and that after a lapse of twenty years the remnant has not succeeded in re-establishing itself.”

While of course disease may have been a genuine factor, like most others of that era, Wood Jones doesn’t seem to have made any connection between the arrival and spread of the European red fox and the rapid decline of the eastern quoll, noting that the years he refers to is the period when foxes were arriving and rapidly increasing in abundance throughout South Australia’s temperate districts where quolls were previously prolific.

Seeing and reading about the clumsy behaviour of a mother quoll with her young in David Fleay’s 1945 article, leaves me with little doubt about the species’ likely susceptibility to fox predation at this stage in their life cycle. Interestingly, one article I shared previously (see here, in Part 6) from a reader of the Adelaide Chronicle who wrote to the editor in 1940, did make the link when he said:

“Another question that might be answered is – what has become of the native cat that used to be plentiful around Tapley’s Hill and Hallett’s Cove 45 years ago?… They seem to have disappeared when the fox arrived.”

If you are interested to read Wood Jones’ full account of the Eastern Quoll from the 1920s, you can see it in the viewer below.


Mark Bachmann