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Feral cats are wiping out endangered marsupials

Feral cats are pushing the critically endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart to the brink of extinction, according to a new study published by Springer. The small, mouse-sized marsupial is found exclusively on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia.

The study authors say their research highlights the urgent need to protect vulnerable species from feral cat predation, particularly following natural disasters such as bushfires.

Scientists estimate that there are only around 500 Kangaroo Island dunnarts remaining.

Kangaroo island was heavily damaged during the 2019-20 bushfires. Around 38 percent of the island was burned, 83 percent of which was burned at levels classified as high to very high severity. Overall, 98 percent of the dunnart’s habitat was severely burned. 

Feral cats are known to threaten the future of many native Australian species. However, this study is the first to investigate and confirm the impacts that feral cats are having on Kangaroo Island dunnarts.  

For the investigation, a team of researchers led by Louis Lignereux assessed the stomach contents and digestive tracts of 86 feral cats. These cats had been captured in specially designated conservation areas on the island between February and August 2020.

According to the researchers, the cats were captured as part of the national feral cat control program, and were euthanized in accordance with South Australia animal welfare laws. 

In the digestive systems of seven different cats, the experts found the remains of eight individual Kangaroo Island dunnarts. These results indicate that the cats are very efficient hunters of this species, given the small numbers of dunnarts that remain following the bushfires, explained the researchers.

The experts say that the combined pressures of a small, isolated population, natural disasters like bushfires, and predation from introduced predators such as feral cats could lead to the extinction of this vulnerable species. 

The study highlights the urgent need for controlling feral cat populations, particularly those in close proximity to endangered and threatened animals. 

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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