It’s raining quolls: The 2018 wrap-up!

By Natalie Freeman

Data for the northern quoll project on Groote Eylandt has ended for 2018 and while I may be biased, I’d say it was a smashing success.

  Quick overnight escape for some RnR to Wayne’s World AKA Jagged Head

Quick overnight escape for some RnR to Wayne’s World AKA Jagged Head

Our marked population is up 30% from 2017, with a whopping 182 individually-identified quolls trapped from February - October. To put this in perspective, literature on the mainland has northern quoll densities around 3-4 individuals per km2, Groote is estimated to be sitting at 142 quolls/km2 within our long term study site for 2018 (data still to be analysed). These overwhelming densities can be largely attributed to the lack of cane toads on Groote Eylandt, along with traditional benign indigenous fire regimes and low feral cat densities. Getting to study this booming northern quoll population (and possibly healthiest population in Australia) is all thanks to the Anindilyakwa Land Council(ALC), Anindilyakwa Land and Sea Rangers, and Traditional Owners of the Groote Archipelago who have allowed our nerdy Wilson Performance Lab to come & research these wonderful creatures on Groote Eylandt for the past 8 years. 

  The annual trap repair & grease ; A breath of fresh air through a rip in the bag for this quoll

The annual trap repair & grease ; A breath of fresh air through a rip in the bag for this quoll

  Feb 2017 & Oct 2018—Same shit-eating grin throughout my PhD

Feb 2017 & Oct 2018—Same shit-eating grin throughout my PhD

With the help of Miranda and Kaylah, we collected DNA samples from 472 joeys that will help answer my PhD question of personality affecting reproductive success for both sexes. The females will soon be putting their joeys in the den for safe keeping, and will wean them by February 2019. A good chunk of my 2019 will be spent genotyping over 2000 individuals from the past few years, and my memories of sunshine on Groote will keep me from withering away under the fluorescent lights of the lab. 

  Timeline of joey growth: a few days old in mid August (far left) to approximately 5 weeks old (middle) to spots just developing by early October - joeys will be denned in the next few weeks (late October).

Timeline of joey growth: a few days old in mid August (far left) to approximately 5 weeks old (middle) to spots just developing by early October - joeys will be denned in the next few weeks (late October).

  See one, do one, teach one: Miranda and Kaylah (middle & right) learning how to collect joey DNA samples

See one, do one, teach one: Miranda and Kaylah (middle & right) learning how to collect joey DNA samples

I am more than overjoyed to announce the giving-up density trials I was conducting over the past 2 years for quoll personality have also ended. With the help of almost everyone in the Wilson lab, we hauled over 6100kg of camera equipment through the bush for my PhD. And here I thought in 2016 “Oh ya, chuck some trail-cams up, and boom! Your first chapter on foraging personality is pretty low on energy input”. With each infrared camera setup being approximately 9kg… my Groote bootcamp of trudging through the bush has our lab in tiptop physical shape with some fine-looking legs & bums as a byproduct. 

  Backpacks loaded and an early start to beat the heat (left) and celebratory bakery treats to keep energy up from Grooty Eylandt Bakery (right).

Backpacks loaded and an early start to beat the heat (left) and celebratory bakery treats to keep energy up from Grooty Eylandt Bakery (right).

The NQ team did get to sneak away for some cheeky golf and  beach visits this trip, along with the occasional sunset drink at the resort to wind down after a long day

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And like these quoll footprints in the sand, the UQ Northern Quoll research team have waltzed off into the sunset back to Brisbane for the remainder of 2018. With our annual lab retreat just around the corner, brainstorming for our 2019 year on Groote will soon be in full swing (with a beer in hand of course!)

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My anaconda don’t unless you got bogged hun?

By Carmen Da Silva

I’ve departed from the Wilson Lab for the Northern Hemisphere summer. Little did I know that Arizona summer is the equivalent of winter. A stifling 45°C is a normal day here in Tempe, and like winter you often don’t find too many people strolling around during the day. This crazy environment does, however, seem like it should be a good location to continue my pursuit to better understand thermal performance in animals and it is the home of Professor Michael Angilletta whose lab I am visiting and expertise I am seeking!

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My first task here has been to learn how to do climate envelope modelling. Jake (PhD student in Mikes lab) and I figured out how to run generalized additive models, machine learning (decision tree) models and how to use MaxEnt to predict how thermal generalists will respond to climate change. I’ve applied these models to intertidal fish and we are writing a cool paper on how thermal generalists will respond to climate change.

Mike was kind enough to take us on a lab adventure to see some of the amazing desert sites while we (a French student named Sam and myself) visited. Driving through the desert was pretty incredible, giant cacti everywhere and bare mountains popping out of the ground all over the place. When we arrived at the campsite (just over the Utah border) we were disappointed to find many RVs enjoying the beautiful lake with crazy rock formations coming out of it. We decided to get further away from the crowd and find a more relaxed setting. As we drove further the road turned into a dirt path, this was fine, we were all up for an adventure. But then it turned to sand. We were in a small Hyundai sedan. Uh oh. The sand got deeper. We found a slightly firm spot and deliberated what to do. It seemed unwise to go further into potentially deeper sand – but it also seemed difficult to go back up hill in deep sand. We decided to take everything out of the car to make it as light as possible and set up camp where we were as it was a bit further away from everyone else, and then tried to drive out. Mike drove up the sand hill in his Hyundia as fast as possible, he made it all the way to the top, we were all cheering – but then he got bogged. Oh no. Time to push

the car down the hill. We looked around trying to find hard ground, but we were out of luck. Things were looking bad. The ground was harder down by the water, but the expanse between us and the water was completely torn up deep sand. I was walking down to the water trying to find an escape path for us, when I heard a “Fuck it, get out of the car Jake, I’m going for it”, I hadn’t quite registered what was happening until I heard a yell “Caarrrmmenn!!” Jake was yelling at me because Mike and his Hyundai were coming at me at full speed bouncing around like crazy through the sand. I ran to the side and the Hyundai flew past. The car stopped. Mike came out of the car and two fists went up into the air and we all cheered – we wouldn’t waste away and die in the desert sun!!

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The camping extravaganzas didn’t stop there. Once we decided to go to sleep many people in large trucks kept driving past us to get to a more remote site around 2am. As our tents stuck out like sore thumbs (since we were randomly perched in the middle of the sand bank) one truck decided to come and investigate us at about 3am. We were not aware of the truck until it drove literally and I mean literally 10cm away from Sam’s tent and on FULL volume blasted “MY ANACONDA DON’T, MY ANACONDA DON’T, MY ANACONDA DON’T WANT NONE UNLESS YOU GOT BUNS HUN”!! As you can imagine we all woke with a start, but no altercations were made with the truck full of red necks. I’ll tuck that encounter away as a cultural experience.

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The rest of the trip was much less eventful, but more enjoyable. We made it to Horseshoe bend, part of the Grand Canyon, an extremely expensive frozen yoghurt store for Jake to do some marking in Wifi and we went to a place called Flagstaff which is forested and elevated so it was shady and cool – a lovely reprieve where we could relax and go on some hikes.

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Once we got back to Tempe it was time to do some work again. We are currently running a thermal performance and oxygen limitation experiment with grasshoppers. Putting my hand into a small box full of jumping insects initially seemed like my worst nightmare – and I consequently did have a dream a couple days later of having to put my hand into a small box full of cockroaches – but it’s actually not so bad holding the hoppers and I have ended up becoming quite fond of them. Plus, we get to use this cool machine where we get to put our hands in giant gloves and feel like we are working in outer space (to put the hoppers into a hypoxic environment).

I’ve only got one week left in Tempe before heading to Montpellier France for the Evolution conference. I’ve ended up learning a lot on this trip so far and I feel like I have also re-gained some motivation and enthusiasm to help me finish off the final leg of my PhD. Working in a new environment and doing something new seems like it can be a great way to get re- energized. Hopefully this momentum will help me make a good presentation for the

conference – which I feel like vomiting just thinking about. However, I am very excited to re- unite with my fellow goby boy Josh, my co-supervisor Cynthia and roach boy Jules at the conference!

I’ll let you know if I vomited at the conference or not in a couple weeks. Adios from Tempe!

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The "Not-so-Twinsies" conquer Groote!

 
 Hannah and Ellie's first morning out checking traps..... learning the skills on Nat's animals :P

Hannah and Ellie's first morning out checking traps..... learning the skills on Nat's animals :P

 

1009 traps and 111 quolls later and we have returned from our 5 weeks of data collection on Groote Eylandt!!!

 Hannah looking chuffed at her and Ellie's accomplishment - Construction of the cornering runway!!! 

Hannah looking chuffed at her and Ellie's accomplishment - Construction of the cornering runway!!! 

The trip up there was an adventure in itself, with a flight to Darwin, a quick lunch stop with past lab member Jaime and then a 90 minute flight on a small 30-seater to Groote. We spent the first few days setting up the lab and building the performance structures. It was here that we began acquiring many new skills as handy-women, including taking a whole hour to insert ONE screw with a power drill and nearly sawing off a finger. After 4 seemingly long days as tradies, our structures were fit for quoll performance and we commenced trapping the next night.

We are looking at quoll diet and performance in two habitat types, open sclerophyll and rocky escarpment areas. Every evening we would set out traps at a site, check them the next morning, process the quolls during the day and then release them that evening.

 Hannah reading the pit-tag on a quoll in the field - to keep or to let go?

Hannah reading the pit-tag on a quoll in the field - to keep or to let go?

 Cheeky northern quoll being inquisitive - or angry you can never know.

Cheeky northern quoll being inquisitive - or angry you can never know.

Trap hauling was another steep learning curve, holding 6 traps on one shoulder, two more in each hand, GPS for navigation, flagging tape and of course a 1kg tin of chum somehow balanced and ready to bait the traps. Needless to say this didn’t come naturally… especially when something like a shoelace needed tying. Nevertheless, it only took a few falls before we became slightly less uncoordinated and carrying traps became the norm

 The impressed face of Ellie crying traps in the field at an open woodlands site.

The impressed face of Ellie crying traps in the field at an open woodlands site.

 Hannah trying to tie her shoe lace without having to put down the trap load.

Hannah trying to tie her shoe lace without having to put down the trap load.

Our sites were beautiful, particularly at sunrise and sunset. We often saw dingoes, frilled lizards and rock wallabies, plus beautiful golden wattle and red grevillea flowers. The beauty of each site made the early mornings and late nights all worth it and we honestly cannot believe how lucky we were to experience such a unique and untouched environment.

 Sunsetting from HW6 - one of our rocky trapping sites - quolls from here were names after big cats (Tiger, Lion, Civet, Puma etc etc)!

Sunsetting from HW6 - one of our rocky trapping sites - quolls from here were names after big cats (Tiger, Lion, Civet, Puma etc etc)!

 Hannah checking out some of the sandstone formations that Groote has on offer.

Hannah checking out some of the sandstone formations that Groote has on offer.

 Ellie enjoying the size and grandeur of the termite mounds on island.

Ellie enjoying the size and grandeur of the termite mounds on island.

Back in the lab we ran the quolls through six performance tests. Up poles, around corners, along straight paths and up and down – it truly was the quoll-ympics. While most were willing, some just wanted no business cooperating which made for some very interesting yoga positions for us, especially when attempting to get them to climb the pole!

The quolls are master escape artists, and when they’ve escaped once there’s a 100% chance it’ll happen again. We once spent 40 minutes trying to coax one out from behind the freezer, while he sat there contently knowing there was no chance we could squeeze into the tight crevice. One of the tests was the ‘firepole’ which involved a quoll climbing a pole and us scaling a ladder to reach them at the top. As a rough estimation, we climbed the ladder 552 times!

 Skye and Ellie trying to coax a quoll up the fire-pole. 

Skye and Ellie trying to coax a quoll up the fire-pole. 

Of course, we also managed to squeeze in a camping spot to beautiful Marble Point, to enjoy a campfire on the beach and an incredible starry night sky, and a trip to aboriginal cave paintings.

 Cave Paintings - this site is a communal gathering area for all family clans on Groote Eylandt.

Cave Paintings - this site is a communal gathering area for all family clans on Groote Eylandt.

 Hannah watching the sunrise from our tent - camping at Marble Point (Hanging Rock). This was our first sleep in in 3 weeks - Bliss!

Hannah watching the sunrise from our tent - camping at Marble Point (Hanging Rock). This was our first sleep in in 3 weeks - Bliss!

The sunsets on Groote were stunning and we made time to watch as many as possible, either in the field or relaxing on the deck with a cider in hand.

 While we didn't make it to many - the few sunsets enjoyed on the deck of the resort we amazing.

While we didn't make it to many - the few sunsets enjoyed on the deck of the resort we amazing.

 And what better way to wind down after a massive day then a chilled cider, sunset, sugar gliders and great company.

And what better way to wind down after a massive day then a chilled cider, sunset, sugar gliders and great company.

There were 5 other fellow lab members on Groote while we were there, and a big shout out goes to Nat and Jess for their delicious vego cooking, Nat and Heather for collecting 95% of Hannah’s insects for her, Nat and Chop for setting up the fire pole and Skye for teaching us how to be expert quoll/trap handlers. The past 5 weeks have been an absolute blast and despite the bites and scratches, we miss the little guys already! Here’s to a whooole lot of data extraction ahead!

 We did it! 5 weeks of non-stop field work!! Over 500 traps in total laid, 24 camera stations deployed, 40 pitfall traps set, and 13 habitat surveys done! 

We did it! 5 weeks of non-stop field work!! Over 500 traps in total laid, 24 camera stations deployed, 40 pitfall traps set, and 13 habitat surveys done! 

Harnessing the fury of Groote sun

By Nat

The main crux of my PhD is looking to see how personality and performance of an individual affects their vulnerability to predation. 

The first component of my PhD is understanding how an individual’s personality affects their chances of being spotted by a predator. Moving throughout and feeding in conspicuous (read: open) foraging locations is risky business for any quoll, as both of these behaviours greatly increases their odds of being spotted. Some quolls may choose to play it safe, and feed in less risk-prone areas or reduce their foraging time in open patches. Other quolls may throw caution to the wind, and stay out in the open, foraging if the food rewards outweigh the costs. This balance between food intake & amount of acceptable risk varies between individuals, creating a spectrum of quoll personalities. Simply put, some quolls are bolder or shyer than others. I have developed a methodology that allows me to score how bold or shy an individual is, all captured on candid camera out in the bush:

feeding design.jpg

Quolls come and search for pieces of bait hidden within the sand, and my infra-red CCTV cameras film their foraging behaviour. I compare the footage against a photo catalogue of all my quolls I have caught during the year, and with a lot of frustration and time, can individually ID the quolls. By knowing who’s who, I can score how bold they are with regards to their foraging decisions.

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Quolls foraging through sand for hidden bait
 
   
  
   
  
    
  
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A leopard can’t change its spots; neither does a quoll. Each quoll has a different pattern of spots just like a fingerprint

 

Each camera is powered by 12volt batteries that weigh 6kg each. Needless to say, setting up & taking down my 20 camera-experiment is back-breaking. To make matters worse, everything needs to be waterproof so these batteries bake in sun in an enclosed box all day, dramatically reducing their charge. My poor volunteers and I were hauling fresh batteries almost every other day through our rocky fieldsite…an OH&S nightmare.

 

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Something smells fishy- making sardine oil to scent the bait; Waterproof battery boxes with a quoll poop garnish; The joys of hauling 6kg batteries once again
 

Last year, I was extremely lucky enough to receive the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment from the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA). This grant allowed me to purchase solar panels for my camera set-up, meaning I didn’t have to replace dying/dead batteries every other day. These solar panels meant I can collect better data (and for longer), dramatically reduce the intensive labour costs of this setup, and as a bonus, decrease my carbon footprint for electricity usage. A trifecta of science gains, all thanks to the ESA and their grants for PhD students. When the Groote sun may cook my brain on a daily basis, at least I’m putting a bit of it’s fury into good use. 

 

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New solar panel set-up, propped up by specimen tubes. Need to be resourceful while conducting research on a remote island
 

To address the second part of my PhD (ability to escape the predator), I need to understand the locomotive capabilities of the quolls. The long-term aspect of the northern quoll study on Groote Eylandt means I have access to experimental designs that the Wilson lab have perfected over the years, helping us quantify an animal’s locomotive performance. These include max sprint speed, acceleration, and agility-  how fast can an individual run around a corner without crashing. In other words, our quolls perform Olympic feats for us while being filmed by high-speed cameras, so we can attempt to understand their ability to evade a chasing predator. Some quolls go above and beyond our standardized tests, which is visible in the video below. This video goes to show just how nimble & agile quolls are, this Matrix-like move is about 1m from the ground.

video to be added

The 2018 data collection year started off with a bang, Chopper was my lucky volunteer for the first 6 week trip. I think he now has a complete understanding on how different his Groote experiences are than mine… studying humans can have perks (like a 9-4pm workday). We averaged 13hours days every day and trapped an astounding total of 104 quolls within our 128 hectare field site, a 25% increase in population from last year. 

   
  
   
  
    
  
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table.MsoNormalTable
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	mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
	mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
	mso-style-noshow:yes;
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	mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
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	mso-para-margin-right:0cm;
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	mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
	mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
	mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;
	mso-ansi-language:EN-AU;
	mso-fareast-language:EN-US;}
 
     

 

The fun never stops: hauling traps back out into the grids
 
fishing1.jpg
fishing2.jpg
fishign3.jpg

Chop catching us much needed protein
 
sunset.jpg

Quite a few evenings finished in the last rays of sunlight
 
booty.png

One perk of battery hauling: it makes that booty round

 

Crazy weather plagued this trip, Cyclone Marcus shut down trapping for almost a week, and our trip was rudely cut short by Cyclone Nora. We flew off island shortly before the rains & wind ramped up. The trip was overall a smashing success, and a great start to 2018 on Groote. The May trip will have 7 Wilson Lab hooligans descending onto the island, so stay tuned for those shenanigans. 

cyclone.jpg

Moody skies before the cyclone
 
moth.jpg
babybandi.jpg