PROTECTING THE BRUSH-TAILED RABBIT-RAT
A brush-tailed rabbit-rat (Photo credit: Hugh Davies)
This project aims to improve the trajectory of the threatened brush-tailed rabbit-rat on Melville Island through strategic threat management and monitoring.
Territory Natural Resource Management (TNRM) is working with Tiwi Resources to facilitate the strategic management of three main threats to the brush-tailed rabbit-rat; inappropriate fire regimes, feral predators and feral herbivores. Activities aimed at mitigating these threats will be informed by previous research by National Environmental Science Program (NESP) researchers and Northern Territory Government scientists.
To build on this earlier work and improve our knowledge of the habitat requirements of the brush-tailed rabbit-rat and their response to threat mitigation activities, TNRM has collaborated with a Charles Darwin University (CDU) PhD student to conduct ongoing monitoring of the Melville Island brush-tailed rabbit-rat population.
TNRM will also provide support and training to Indigenous land managers to undertake fauna and habitat surveys, implement strategic fire management and feral herbivore culling, and to assist in community cat awareness and management campaigns.
A brush-tailed rabbit-rat (Photo credit: Georgie Neave)
SAVING THE SPECIES
The brush-tailed rabbit-rat is listed as endangered in the Northern Territory (Territory Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1976) and Vulnerable nationally (Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999). It was formerly known from across the northern Australian savannas, but following a steep decline in the early 2000’s it is now only known in the NT from Garig Gunak Barlu National Park on the mainland, the Tiwi Islands, Elcho Island and Groote Eylandt, and also in the north Kimberley region in WA.
The main threats facing the species are high intensity fire and grazing from feral herbivores that reduces habitat quality and quantity, and predation by feral cats. The species was listed as a priority mammal under the Australian Government’s Threatened Species Strategy 2015-2020, and Territory Natural Resource Management has been funded through the National Landcare Program to deliver a 3-year project from 2020 – 2023, aimed at improving or stabilising the trajectory of the threatened brush-tailed rabbit-rat.
ABOUT THE BRUSH-TAILED
At around 150g, the brush-tailed rabbit-rat is a partly arboreal native rodent with a long brush-tipped tail (black or white), and large, rabbit-like ears. Found in tropical woodlands and open forests, it dens in tree hollows and large logs on the ground.
It is known to predominately eat grass seed, especially cockatoo grass (Alloteropsis semialata), but will also forage on termites, fruits and leaves. The brush-tailed rabbit-rat is a critical weight range mammal, which indicates its susceptibility to predation by feral cats.
Initial surveys to establish baseline data for the project on Melville Island were undertaken by CDU PhD student, Georgie Neave, in June 2021. The data collected as part of these surveys build on the work done by NESP researcher Dr Hugh Davies on the species in the same area. These initial surveys form the baseline from which to assess the impact of threat mitigation activities.
To mitigate the effect of high severity fire, Tiwi Resources Rangers have been engaged to undertake strategic fire management in brush-tailed rabbit-rat habitat early in the dry season. Community awareness of responsible fire practices around brush-tailed rabbit-rat habitat was encouraged during the Tiwi Resources annual fire roadshow on Tiwi Islands.
To manage the threat of cat predation, TNRM are running a “COMMUNITY CAT MANAGEMENT IN REMOTE INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES” program across the Tiwi Islands in collaboration with Animal Management in Remote and Rural Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC), The Ark Vet, and Tiwi Island Regional Council (TIRC).
The program aims to both improve responsible pet ownership practices and reduce cat ownership rates in community to reduce the predation pressure by pet cats. The program involves educational drives on the benefits of desexing cats and the impacts of cats on wildlife, as well as supporting veterinary drives to de-sex cats. The first of these drives took place in September 2021 and had great community engagement.
Surveys for feral herbivores — buffalo and horses — were carried out across Melville Island in April 2022. Data from these surveys will be shared with Tiwi Resources, Tiwi Land Council and Traditional Owners to inform management activities. Feral herbivores reduce habitat quality and quantity for the brush-tailed rabbit-rat and other native animals through excessive grazing and trampling, and the trails they create through the savanna woodland serve as hunting corridors for feral cats, amplifying the predation pressure on the brush-tailed rabbit-rat.
Further surveys for the brush-tailed rabbit-rat are planned in the coming year to increase our knowledge of the species’ response to threat mitigation activities.