The spotted-tailed colt is on the brink of endemic extinction in far north Queensland

A secretive endemic animal feared to have almost disappeared from Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands has surprised and delighted researchers with promising numbers.

Spotted tailed colt — Dasyurus maculatus — Australia’s second largest carnivorous marsupial after the Tasmanian devil, and two recognized subspecies occur in eastern Australia, extending from the far north of Queensland to Tasmania.

A 2020 James Cook University (JCU) study found that colts have completely disappeared from parts of their former range in the Wet Tropics, and have dwindled to very low numbers in areas such as the Atherton Tablelands.

Using hidden cameras, volunteers from the Australian Coal Conservancy (AQC) recorded more than 20 colts in Danbulla National Park near Lake Tinaroo.

2 female busts, one standing and the other looking
Two young female colts photographed by AQC in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area(Provided by: Australian Coal Conservancy)

AQC president Alberto Valle explained that the number of calls has not necessarily increased significantly, but rather that the use of technology has allowed more calls to be recorded.

“Coles is very secretive and you won’t find them unless you look for them,” he said.

“We lure the animals, for which we have permission, and then we are able to monitor their numbers with motion-sensor cameras.

“You can’t expect someone from Brisbane or Townsville to do research for a month and come back with a population pattern in a month.”

Capturing the vision, not the cols

The AQC team strategically placed non-invasive motion-sensor cameras behind low-hanging loars around the national park to record cole.

Recorded sightings and photos show colts standing up to catch lures.

Two juvenile spotted-tailed colts gaze at the lure at night
Two juvenile Spotted Tailed Coles test a lure on the Atherton Tablelands.(Provided by: Australian Coal Conservancy)

The vision can then determine sex, height, sac development and approximate age of the colt.

The cameras feed back to a server in real time, meaning sites are untouched and no need to capture laps.

“We don’t touch them, we don’t use cages, we don’t do anything that would interfere with the species and it’s a great way to study them,” Mr Veal said.

Population under threat

According to the Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water, spotted-tailed koalas have suffered “significant declines in range and abundance since European settlement,” with many populations “fragmented and isolated.”

Two colts stand together trying to reach a lure hanging from a tree
Juvenile spotted-tailed colt siblings pictured in Danbulla National Park in 2021.(Provided by: Australian Coal Conservancy)

James Cook University Associate Professor Dr Conrad Hoskin was the lead author of a 2020 study that found alarming declines in spotted-tailed koalas in far north Queensland.

“It’s good to see that there is evidence that they are breeding on the tablelands”.

“In the last 20 years the numbers have definitely dwindled to a very small number. It’s great to see that there is evidence in young people now; if they make it to adulthood it will be interesting to see in the next few years.

“We [JCU] Another estimate will come out next year, so it will be interesting to compare the numbers then.”

Mr Hoskin said there were a number of threats to Cole numbers, but surprisingly feral cats were not among them.

“Cats and cubs avoid each other. A juvenile may be preyed upon by a cat, but females protect the cubs,” he said.

“They are strong and sizeable animals; a cat won’t mess with a full-grown colt.”

Roads and toads are the biggest threat

According to Mr Hoskin, the biggest threats to Cole in the Tablelands were cars and cane toads.

A cane toad sits on a hand in front of a dark background
Poisonous cane toads are one of the threats facing spotted-tailed colts in far north Queensland.(ABC: Alex Hyman)

“Tinaru Lake has a large number of toads breeding,” he said.

“We are concerned about the colts eating the toads and possible poisoning.”

“The other threat to the spotted-tailed colt is roadkill. We’re definitely seeing some roadkill at the top of the Gillis Range.

“Road traffic is a big problem for male colts who wander off the tablelands during the breeding season, looking for females.”

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