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Feral Cats, Foxes Behind Australia's Alarming Mammal Extinctions

Feb 10, 2015 10:46 AM EST
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Australia's mammals are going extinct at an alarming rate, and voracious feral cats and foxes are to blame, according to new research.

Australia has always been unique, in both its geographical distribution "down under" and its vast array of wild creatures, some of which are the most lethal in the world. However, it turns out that this incredible biodiversity may be threatened as species are increasingly dying off.

"The extent of the problem has been largely unappreciated until recently because much of the loss involves small, nocturnal, shy species with [little] public profile - few Australians know of these species, let alone have seen them, so their loss has been largely unappreciated by the community," conservation biologist John Woinarski, who led the research, told BBC News.

So while Australia's iconic koalas, kangaroos and dingoes are still around, they might not be for long. The continent has lost one in 10 of its native mammal species over the last 200 years - the highest extinction rate of any nation in the world.

"A further 56 Australian land mammals are now threatened, indicating that this extremely high rate of biodiversity loss is likely to continue unless substantial changes are made," Woinarski added.

Such at-risk species include the endangered northern quoll and brush-tailed rabbit-rat, which is listed as near-threatened.

It would seem obvious that like in other parts of the world, humans are the culprit, either overhunting these animals or destroying their habitat. But in reality scientists should be pointing the finger at feral cats and foxes - predators brought to the continent by European settlers in 1788 that apparently have a hungry appetite.

According to The Associated Press (AP), sailors introduced the feral cat to help keep on-board rat populations in check, while red foxes were brought over for hunting. But apparently both species were a little too good at their job, spreading rapidly and preying on perfect "meal-sized" mammals.

(Photo : Pixabay)

"We knew it was bad, but I think our tallies were much worse than previously thought," Woinarski, of Australia's Charles Darwin University, told the AP. "The fact that we're losing such a large proportion of our species is a problem of international importance."

This isn't the first time an invasive species has wreaked havoc in the region. The infamous cane toad, for example, imported in 1935 in a bid to control beetles on sugarcane plantations, even to this day threatens various local species. Would-be predators fall victim to its highly toxic venom, excreted from glands on its seemingly harmless skin.

In this latest string of extinctions, the researchers also suspect that raging wildfires play a part, but for now their efforts are focused on trying to control the invasive cats and foxes. The scientists noted that seven species that were once widespread on the Australian mainland now live naturally only on islands that the cats and foxes have yet to colonize.

"Other than just the sheer awful news that Australia has lost so many of its species is the fact that it's done it across areas that are very, very sparsely populated," said Stuart Pimm, an expert in present-day extinctions. "It tells us that by being careless, particularly with invasive species, that we can do an extraordinary amount of environmental harm even in places where there aren't a lot of people."

"There are parts of the world where invasive species have gone amok," he added, "and that tells us we need to be very careful not to bring in any more to do any more harm."

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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