Feral cats threatening our little eco-engineers

Murdoch University research has identified feral cats as a serious threat to WA’s beloved bilby population, often described as wildlife’s eco-engineers.

Master’s student Faith Chen, now a PhD candidate, monitored bilby habitats in the West Kimberley using motion-activated cameras. Results showed cats regularly visiting the burrows, and that even the presence of these feral predators was enough to substantially decrease burrow maintenance activity.

The disturbance also had an impact on other wildlife such as lizards and birds which used bilby habitats for shelter.

“I think it really goes to show how much effort we need to put into feral cat management,” Ms Chen said.

One of Ms Chen’s supervisors, Murdoch University professor and wildlife ecologist Trish Fleming, said feral cat predation may have even broader implications as they targeted the eco-engineers.  The bilby’s digging behaviour turns over soil, which leads to an increase in nutrient cycling.

Professor Fleming said the bilby was in severe decline. Once found across 70 per cent of the Australian mainland, it was now restricted to approximately 20 per cent of its former distribution,” she said.

Feral cats had been linked to the extinction of more than 20 native mammal species, and previous field research recorded positive fauna responses after small mammal to cat population suppression.

Ms Chen’s research filled an important gap in knowledge regarding the extent of disruption feral cats posed to the bilby population, and researchers are now exploring different methods of population control.