PhD candidate identifies risk to 'eco-engineering' bilby population

Bilby in burrow

New research from Murdoch University has identified feral cats as a serious threat to WA’s beloved bilby population, also donned wildlife’s ‘eco-engineers’.

Murdoch University Masters student Faith Chen conducted research in the West Kimberley monitoring bilby habitats using motion-activated cameras. 

Results identified felines regularly visiting the burrows, and showed that even the presence of feral cats was enough to substantially decrease burrow maintenance activity.  

Ms Chen said the disturbance also had an impact on other wildlife such as lizards and birds who used bilby habitats for shelter.  

“Now that we know even the presence of feral cats can alter bilby behaviour, I think it really goes to show how much effort we need to put into feral cat management,” Ms Chen said.  

One of Ms Chen’s supervisors, Murdoch University professor and wildlife ecologist Trish Fleming, advised that feral cat predation may have even broader implications as they targeted the eco-engineers.   

The bilby’s digging behaviour turns over soil, which leads to an increase in nutrient cycling, and Professor Fleming said the animal was facing a concerningly “severe decline”. 

“The bilby once had a distribution across 70 per cent of the Australian mainland,” Professor Fleming said. 

“The species is now restricted to approximately 20% of its former distribution.” 

With sustainability and a thriving eco-system a global priority, Professor Fleming said it was important to develop and use a range of tools to control feral cat populations, tipping the balance to favour native species.  

Professor Fleming said feral cats had been linked to the extinction of more than 20 native mammal species, and previous field research recorded positive fauna responses after small mammal to cat population suppression. 

Ms Chen’s research filled an important gap in knowledge regarding the extent of disruption feral cats posed to the bilby population, and researchers are now exploring different methods of population control. 

Ms Chen is currently a PHD candidate, and will dedicate her research to improving monitoring methods for the feral cat population. 

Now that we know more about this issue, I want to see what else I can tackle."

Passionate about the environment and wildlife? Find out how you can pursue your passions at Murdoch University. 
Posted on:

18 Sep 2023

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