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Saving the Northern Bettong with Dr Chris Pocknee

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Today we are speaking with very-soon-to-be Dr Chris Pocknee who is finishing up his PhD at the University of Queensland in April 2022. He has spent the past 3 years working with the Endangered Northern Bettong (Bettongia tropica) to understand the impact of fire and feral cats on their survival.

This collaborative project is all about applied conservation: filling important knowledge gaps to generate clear management outcomes to protect the Northern Bettong.

Here in part 1, Saving the Northern Bettong, we will look at:

  • What is a Northern Bettong?
  • Why are Northern Bettong so threatened?
  • And, what is being done to save these cuties from extinction?

In part 2, Chris shares his journey thus far in wildlife conservation and provides some hot tips on how he has “fast-tracked” his career in ecology: there aren’t many young people who’ve done as much as Chris has to research and protect Australia’s wildlife! We hope that by hearing Chris’ story you can see that working in wildlife conservation is totally possible, and the outcomes can be amazing! So, treat this as a “recipe for success” and make sure you check it out too!

Saving the Northern Bettong with Dr Chris Pocknee | #itsawildlife

So, what actually is a Northern Bettong?

Slight-built, grey, furry friends, or as Chris explains, “imagine a wallaby shrunk down to the size of a rabbit and you have a bettong.” These cuties fossick about in the understory where they construct sneaky dome-shaped nests in grass tussocks (using their tails!) and forage on the finest truffles and grass bulbs.

So, why are they so threatened?

The Northern Bettong is “Endangered” and has declined from most of their range and are now restricted to only a few locations such a Lamb Range on the Atherton Tablelands, Queensland. Chris explains that Northern Bettongs have very specific habitat requirements: tall open eucalypt woodlands on the fringe of the “wet tropics” region. Without frequent cool fires through this habitat, it quickly becomes thick, dense rainforest and the grass layer, on which the Bettongs rely, is lost. On top of that, at just over 30 cm in height, they are snack-sized for feral cats. To summarise, change in land use, fire patterns and feral cat predation make the Northern Bettong vulnerable to extinction.

In fact, when ecologist, Dr Hayley Geyle and colleagues looked at the chance of threatened Australian species going extinct in the next 20 years – the Northern Bettong was high on the list with a 14 % chance of disappearing forever.

Thank goodness for people like Chris working to prevent this from happening on our watch!

The Northern Bettong research project

Over the past 3 years, Chris and his team have been working to understand what makes the Northern Bettong thrive: habitat characteristics, predator density and Bettong behaviour.

Chris has been comparing data from 2 Northern Bettong populations: a thriving one (1,000 bettongs) in Lamb Range and a declining one (only 50 bettongs) on Mt Spurgeon, Mt Lewis National Park.

He has been camera trapping for 3 years to detect changes in bettong and cat sightings. To better understand the impact of fire on bettong populations, Chris has been trapping these peanut-butter-mad bettongs a few weeks before and after prescribed burns. A few “lucky” bettongs were also fitted with GPS collars to “stalk” changes in their movements before and after these burns.

And after a busy few years of field work, Chris and his team have had some very exciting results!

Ultimately, Chris found that Northern Bettong populations are highly reliant on a well-managed fire program to persist. His GPS collars suggest bettongs don’t shift their home ranges in response to cool burns and will only move their nest site to another site within their home range if the nest becomes burnt.

At the Lamb Range site, there are frequent cool burns (every 3 years for 25 years), very few sightings of feral cats and good numbers of Northern Bettong as well as other threatened mammals including bandicoots, Black-footed Tree-rat, Northern Quoll and Greater Glider! Comparatively, the Mt Spurgeon site is not burnt as frequently and hosts only a small, declining population of Northern Bettong.

This shows the importance of well-managed fire programs for persistence of Northern Bettong and Chris’ research is feeding into a management plan to protect them into the future, at both the Lamb Range and Mt Spurgeon sites, as well as another site within their historical range, Mt Zero-Taravale. This ‘wet tropics’ property, managed by Australian Wildlife Conservancy is the site of a new feral-proof fence which is being constructed to re-establish an insurance population of Northern Bettong out of harms reach from feral cats.

So, Chris’s research is already informing:

  1. Fire management at existing sites to protect bettongs,
  2. Site management in preparation for re-introduction at Mt Zero-Taravale
  3. Part of the feral cat picture in north Queensland

… in order to save the Northern Bettong.

At the conclusion of his fieldwork, the NESP Threatened Species Recovery Hub put together a video showcasing Chris’ work with the Northern Bettong.

Collaborations and funding:

With so much at stake, this project has been a mighty collaborative effort between many stakeholders including Djabugay and Buluwai Traditional owners, University of Queensland, NESP Threatened Species Hub, Queensland Department of Environment and Science, Queensland Parks and Wildlife, James Cook University, Australian Wildlife Conservancy and the Northern Bettong Recovery Team.

Additional funding was provided through the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment (Ecological Society of Australia), Paddy Pallin Foundation and Wet Tropics Management Authority.

Keep in touch

You can follow Chris’s adventures on his Instagram @a.wild.pocknee and on Twitter @scipock. And stay tuned for part 2 – his journey and advice on working in wildlife conservation.

What do you think? why not let us know or follow along for the adventure!

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Links of importance:

You can get a free copy of the paper we cited by Heyley Geyle and colleagues (2018) Quantifying extinction risk and forecasting the numbers of impending Australian bird and mammal extinctions.

If you’d like more information on Chris’ project, saving the Northern Bettong, check out the NESP factsheet here.

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