Environment Teaching threatened species to be wary of predators

Teaching threatened species to be wary of predators

Native animals under threat from introduced species,  like the burrowing bettong, can successfully learn how to avoid their enemies, UNSW scientists have found.

Burrowing bettongs — a little Australian marsupial —  were once widespread across Australia but are now found only on off-shore islands or in fenced reserves, mainly due to predation by introduced feral cats and red foxes.

The new findings, could assist in their successful reintroduction to the mainland.

In the study, the burrowing bettong, was exposed to small numbers of predators in the wild.

“Australian native species have not evolved with cats and foxes and so have not learnt the behaviours that can help them avoid being killed,” UNSW scientist Dr Katherine Moseby says.

“This naivety is thought to be the reason why most efforts to reintroduce threatened species outside fenced reserves and islands fail.

“We decided to address the issue of prey naivety by exposing native animals to low densities of real introduced predators in the wild in an attempt to stimulate learning and natural selection.”

UNSW scientist Dr Rebecca West said that previous attempts to train animals to avoid predators had been carried out in laboratories or in captivity, with animals exposed to images, models or real predators. These approaches rarely improved survival.

“Our results show that real predator exposure can change behaviour,” Dr West says.

Bettongs exposed to feral cats became harder to approach, displayed more hiding behaviour in traps and started to show increased wariness when feeding.

Dr West said the study also provides hope that other threatened mammals may one day return to Australia’s mainland.

Read more about the study’s methods and findings here. Story credit: UNSW newsroom.

Studies to help protect our precious native species are only possible if we support our universities. To keep Australia clever, please sign the petition below.