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Feral cats, foxes hunting Australian mammals to brink of extinction

By Brooks Hays
Feral cats, foxes hunting Australian mammals to brink of extinction
A numbat, one Australia's many endangered mammals. Photo by Bidgee/CC

DARWIN, Australia, Feb. 10 (UPI) -- Scientists at Charles Darwin University in Australia say their home continent is suffering an "extinction calamity," and has been for the last 200 years. Recent research into the impact of feral predators, specifically cats and red foxes, suggests 1 in 10 mammalian species have been lost to extinction over the last two centuries.

"No other country has had such a high rate and number of mammal extinctions over this period, and the number we report for Australia is substantially higher than previous estimates," lead researcher John Woinarski, a conservation biologist, told BBC News.

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The island continent has lost nearly 30 of its more than 273 native land-based mammal species since 1978. Another 56 species are either threatened or endangered. The new study suggests the primary drivers of these losses are predation by feral animals, as well as habitat loss from development and land management wildfires.

"Urgent action is required to better understand how to manage feral cats before more wildlife species are lost forever," Northern Territory Government scientist Graeme Gillespie said last year. Gillespie was not involved in the latest study but has been conducting a range of experiments to better understand how native species are affected by populations of feral hunters like cats.

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Scientists believe Australia is home to between 15 million and 23 million wild cats. Some of the endangered mammals that are vulnerable to cats and foxes include the central rock rat, eastern Jerboa marsupial, northern hairy-nosed wombat, numbat and Shark Bay mouse.

"Lowering the cat population enough to take pressure off natives will be difficult and expensive, so we also need to trial cat-control techniques," Gillespie said.

One of the solutions conservationists are considering is doing more to boost and protect biodiversity on islands off the Australian mainland, where it may be easier to eliminate and keep out feral cats and foxes.

The new study on Australia's rate of mammal extinction was published online this week in the journal PNAS.

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