Photo: Kristian Bell

From quolls to emus: how the animals of the Tasmanian Midlands help guide conservation

Ecologists gathering in Launceston this week are discussing how the animals of the Tasmanian Midlands can guide conservation priorities in the region. From the lack of data on Tasmanian birds, to the movement of quolls, and why there are no longer emus roaming here.

Scientists available for interview – contact Toni Stevens; Ecological Society of Australia on 0401 763 130 or

Quoll-ity data for setting conservation priorities

Dr Kirstin Proft (University of Tasmania)

Putting GPS trackers on quolls and bettongs is helping ecologists find key areas of their habitat to restore in the midlands, says Dr Kirstin Proft from the University of Tasmania.

Kirstin and her team tracked 10 quolls and 25 bettongs to see where they went, and if different land-uses, such as farms, acted as a barrier to their movement and ability to find mates.

Both quolls and bettongs preferred to stay within woodlands and avoided open areas. However, both species were able to run quickly across areas of pasture if necessary, using small patches of trees as stepping stones where possible. Quolls, in particular, can move large distances across farming landscapes within a few days.

With this information the researchers have been able to map the landscape, showing features that make it easier or harder for the marsupials to move about.

“Comparing these landscape maps to patterns of genetic similarity allows us to work out which  parts of the midlands might be a barrier to animals travelling to breed with each other,” says Kirstin.

“The maps can give clues about which areas of these marsupials’ habitats are most in need of restoration to help encourage different populations to breed with each other and to protect these species.”

Miner noise complaints – Tasmanian songbirds are losing their homes to aggressive noisy miners

Mr Glen Bain (University of Tasmania)

Even in Tasmania’s peaceful Midlands, noisy miners could be stressing out other native birds and causing them to leave their woodland homes, according to researchers at the University of Tasmania.

Mr Glen Bain and his team of researchers analysed blood samples from superb fairy-wrens and found birds who lived near noisy miners were more stressed than those who lived far from them.

The researchers surveyed birds at 72 sites, including some sites which had been surveyed 20 years ago, and compared data on how common certain birds were and how this has changed, with data on features of the environment. They found tree cover, elevation, and the presence of the very aggressive honeyeater, the noisy miner, had the biggest effect on whether or not other birds were hanging around.

Looking back at the data from 20 years ago, large grain- or meat-eating birds have become more common, but birds who forage in trees for food or who eat nectar were the biggest losers, with birds unique to Tasmania also losing out.

“I found dramatic increases in some species like corellas, ravens and cockatoos – to be expected – but also some signs of decline in birds who forage in the trees, like pardalotes and the endemic yellow-throated honeyeater,” explains Glen.

“The bird data I collected helps to provide a baseline of species abundance and occupancy against which the success of restorative efforts in the Midlands can be assessed in future,” he says.

Glen and his team say more study is necessary – both to find out if it’s noisy miners specifically that are causing the fairy-wrens stress rather than something else in their environments, and to eventually bring birds back to the Tasmanian Midlands.

When it comes to stream-side living, some are pickier than others

Dr Leon Barmuta (University of Tasmania)

Local conditions of streams and riverbanks are important for rats and ducks, but it’s the state of the surrounding landscape that influence the health of insects and the birds and bats that eat them, according to Dr Leon Barmuta from the University of Tasmania

Leon and this team set up camera traps across 15 stream areas in the Tasmanian midlands and ‘caught’ almost 600 separate animal encounters on camera.

“For the streams’ most common users, Pacific black ducks and invasive black rats, local conditions rather than the condition of the broader landscape are the most important factor in their occurrence,” says Leon.

“But by contrast, it’s the health of the catchment landscape which affects the number of insects, and therefore determines the presence of insect-eating birds and bats.”

Leon’s team also found farm dams were important homes for semi-aquatic and riverbank-dwelling animals, with invasive species such as black rats and the native noisy miner being more likely to be found in areas that had more man-made changes.

These findings will help land managers decide which habitat types are important to conserve in the midlands landscape. The next steps will be to use DNA to look for the more elusive animals, such as the platypus.

Emus once walked tall across Tassie’s Midlands

Mr Tristan Derham (University of Tasmania)

Now extinct from Australia’s biggest island, emus once walked tall across Tasmania’s Midlands, central West, and coastal Northeast, according to Mr Tristan Derham at the University of Tasmania.

“I think it’s sad that we have forgotten about Tasmania’s emus,” says Tristan. “Emus have important cultural and ecological roles – for example they are fantastic seed dispersers.”

Tristan examined more than fifty first-hand accounts from up to the mid 1800s, along with data on climate, distance to fresh water, and types of vegetation to figure out where the emus were most likely to have wandered.

“Our preliminary results are showing that the core habitat for emus was probably the Midlands, all the way from the Derwent to the Tamar. There was probably great habitat in the Northeast as well, especially along the coastal plains,” Tristan explains.

He says habitat change to cropping and pasture, hunting by people and dogs, and the stopping of Aboriginal burning practices likely contributed to the Tasmanian emu’s demise.

“Now the question is, if the emus are missing then what are their ecosystems missing out on?”

What is this, a hotel for ants? Community-designed species hotels are works of art

Dr Louise Wallis (University of Tasmania)

Generations have teamed up to make beautiful ‘hotels’ for some of Australia’s most endangered species, according to Dr Louise Wallis at the University of Tasmania.

Running for three years as a first-year architectural design program, each year, over 60 first-year architecture and design students, a primary school class (grade ones and twos), restorative ecologists, PhD researchers in endangered species and design staff come together to design the hotels, with some already being inhabited.

Louise says having many generations involved means the group communicates, imagines, and possibly even creates better; and also allows the group to learn from each-other. In particular, the primary school students are enthusiastic and ‘unashamedly’ ask experts and researchers questions, and the experts and researchers must practice communicating both with the primary school students and with the architecture and design students.

The programs begin by bringing everyone together at the local Community Hall, where primary school and PhD students work with experts and researchers to understand the endangered animal, designs and make models. The next workshop event will be In early April 2020 with year 9 students from across the state.

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The Ecological Society of Australia’s 2019 Annual Conference is held on the 24th – 29th November at the Hotel Grand Chancellor, Launceston.