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.

perve cam.png

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.

 

sardine.jpg
box poop.jpg
battery hauling.jpg

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. 

 

solarpanel.png

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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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

Wonders of nature: a flashy moth and 3 bandicoot joeys whose eyes are just beginning to open

Update from Bec in the USA: new year, new job, new papers!

I am pretty dang happy to be able to say that as of the 25th of January, I officially became "Dr Bec". This would obviously not have been even remotely possible without my fantastic support network - my advisors, the lab, my collaborators, my students and volunteers, my family, and a whole lot of 80s rock star buff-footed antechinus - thank you, from the bottom of my overjoyed, geeky heart.

 Thanks lil guys!

Thanks lil guys!

I've been lucky enough to score a postdoc with Robbie, so I get to stick around in the Wilson lab for another year! For my postdoc, I'm building a mathematical model to predict prey escape success against predators in different kinds of habitats. The end goal of this model is to predict how well different native marsupials (such as northern quolls and brown bandicoots) can escape from mammalian predators (like cats and dingoes) in different kinds of habitats, using data my lab mates are collecting on Groote Eylandt. This will allow us to predict what kinds of habitats are best for native mammals, which will hopefully have some conservation implications. I also function as the Wilson lab's go-to stats person, and am running a bunch of the statistics for our human health project.