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Translocation outcomes for the Western Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus occidentalis) in the presence of the Common Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula): health, survivorship and habitat use

Clarke, Judith Rebekah (2011) Translocation outcomes for the Western Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus occidentalis) in the presence of the Common Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula): health, survivorship and habitat use. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The western ringtail possum, Pseudocheirus occidentalis, is classified as threatened, both nationally and internationally. Land clearing for building development threatens the last major coastal population stronghold in and around the town of Busselton in the south-west of Western Australia (WA). Translocation of displaced P. occidentalis from this locality into nearby conservation estates commenced in 1991, in the presence of fox control, with the aim of re-establishing populations of the species within suitable habitat outside its current range. Initial successes (1991-1998) were followed by a major population decline at one site for unclear reasons. The aim of this project was to determine which factors presently limit translocation success for P. occidentalis and thereby provide direction for future management of the species.

Displaced and rehabilitated P. occidentalis were translocated into three sites, two of which were baited for fox control. Survival was monitored weekly, causes of mortality were ascertained and attributes of habitat use were mapped and analysed. Each individual P. occidentalis underwent comprehensive health and disease screening under isoflurane anaesthesia prior to translocation and whenever recaptured for re-collaring. Health, survivorship and habitat use of resident common brushtail possums, Trichosurus vulpecula, were similarly studied at each site. Pilot spotlight surveys using line transect methods were performed at the end of the study to provide provisional data on population densities.

Health screening revealed no evidence that infectious disease currently limits translocation success for P. occidentalis. Possums of both species were negative for toxoplasmosis, leptospirosis, salmonellosis and chlamydiosis. Cryptococcal antigen was detected in one individual T. vulpecula but was not of pathological significance. Endoparasite levels were negatively correlated with body condition. Differences between pre- and post-translocation haematological values were found, suggesting that habitat quality or nutrient intake were lower at the translocation sites than at the sites of origin.

Mortality rates of translocated P. occidentalis were high. The majority of P. occidentalis deaths were attributed to predation, with foxes, cats, pythons and raptors all implicated. Some P. occidentalis died in poor body condition from apparent hypothermia/hypoglycaemia, with moderate to heavy parasite burdens present at necropsy. Most T. vulpecula mortality was attributable to fox predation. Survivorship analyses were carried out using information-theoretic techniques to investigate which, if any, of a suite of hypothesised factors most influenced post-translocation survival of P. occidentalis. The most highly ranked models were those that included pre-release white blood cell counts and/or numbers of T. vulpecula at the release site. Survivorship of P. occidentalis was negatively correlated with each of these factors, and the two together acted in a synergistic fashion. Effects of fox control on P. occidentalis survivorship were equivocal. The average annual survival rate of established P. occidentalis was less than half that of resident T. vulpecula.

Post-translocation dispersal distances varied among individual P. occidentalis. Mean home range sizes of translocated P. occidentalis were larger than those reported for other coastal populations. Individual home ranges overlapped one another, both within and between possum species. Vegetation dominated by peppermint (Agonis flexuosa) was utilised by translocated P. occidentalis where available, and habitat partitioning between the two possum species was observed in some areas. A greater range of diurnal rest site types were utilised by P. occidentalis than T. vulpecula. Spotlight surveys revealed presence of low density P. occidentalis populations, including juveniles, at two sites but numbers remained negligible in the site at which the post-1998 decline had occurred.

Complex interactions involving health, predation, habitat quality and inter-specific competition influence the success or otherwise of wildlife translocation programs. The results of this project suggest that all these factors, particularly predation, affected translocation outcomes for P. occidentalis during the period of study. Complete exclusion of exotic predators (foxes and cats) from the translocation sites may be necessary in future, especially given the numbers of native predators (pythons and raptors) present. In addition to heavy predation pressure, the small size and apparently low carrying capacity of the translocation sites for P. occidentalis, along with high numbers of resident T. vulpecula, currently appears to limit P. occidentalis survival and population growth.

While, in the short term, the most efficient use of funds and the best option for the species in its current coastal strongholds might be to put greater effort into conserving P. occidentalis in its natural environment, there could also be value in carrying out further experiments to determine whether or not translocation success can be improved through use of particular management actions. The principles of adaptive management apply both to management of P. occidentalis in its natural environment and to conduction of translocation programs. Possible experimental approaches are outlined and recommendations for further research proposed.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences
Supervisor(s): Warren, Kristin, Robertson, Ian, Calver, Michael and de Tores, Paul
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