Issue 15
Monday, 11 September 2017
Charles Darwin University
E-news
The Butler’s Dunnart is only found on the Tiwi Islands
The Butler’s Dunnart is only found on the Tiwi Islands

Threatened species caught on camera

One of Northern Australia’s rarest animals has been helped by a new monitoring technique developed by a Charles Darwin University PhD candidate.

Butler’s Dunnart, a tiny carnivorous marsupial, was discovered by famous adventurer and naturalist Harry Butler in the Kimberley in 1965.

Presumed to have once been widespread, it is now only known from the Tiwi Islands, 80km north of Darwin in the Northern Territory.  

A partnership including the Tiwi Land Council, Rangers, Traditional Owners, Tiwi Plantations Corporation, Charles Darwin University and the Northern Territory Government are working to improve threatened species management on the islands.

With scant information available about Butler’s Dunnart, deciding how best to protect it, has been challenging.

Improving ways to find and monitor the species has now been significantly boosted by PhD candidate Larissa Potter, whose research is contributing to the Threatened Species Recovery Hub of the National Environmental Science Programme.

“Scientists have been actively looking for this species since 2002 and trialling different methods to detect it in wildlife surveys,” Larissa said.

“Most traditional methods did not work, except for deep pitfall traps, which involve digging shafts 60cm deep. This is really hard work and makes monitoring for the species difficult and quite expensive.”

Through her research, Larissa has looked at using motion detection cameras, also called camera traps, to detect the species and how it compares to the deep pitfall traps. 

 “Given how tiny the dunnart is and that there are sometimes other mouse sized mammals in the same areas we had to be sure that we could correctly identify it in camera images,” she said.

“The great news is that we could, and have now detected the animal about 30 times in the past three years.”

Charles Darwin University research fellow Dr Brett Murphy is supervising Larissa’s project and undertaking research to help Northern Australia’s threatened mammals for the Threatened Species Recovery Hub of the National Environmental Science Programme.

“Unless we can monitor species efficiently, we don’t know if the conservation actions we are undertaking are paying off for our vulnerable wildlife species,” Dr Murphy said.

“This new monitoring method is much cheaper and more efficient than traditional monitoring methods and will greatly improve our ability to monitor and care for this species.”

The research is supported by Tiwi Plantations Corporation, a locally owned plantation forestry company, who already monitor for the dunnart and will benefit from being able to use improved techniques.