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Scientists revived hopes about the survival of the northern quoll

The northern quoll is a weird, but cute little carnivore, native to North Australia. In fact, this carnivorous marsupial is sometimes called the North Australian native cat. Sadly, the northern quoll is endangered and hopes of saving it are slim. However, now scientists from the University of Queensland found that different isolated populations of the northern quoll can actually be cross-bred.

The northern quoll may not be an extremely good survivor, but its skull shape is pretty versatile for different types of food. Image credit: Wildlife Explorer via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

The northern quoll is very small. Females weigh just about 350-690 grams, while males reach 540-1120. They eat some fruit, but they are mostly carnivorous – they feed on rodents, birds, lizards, snakes, and frogs. Sometimes they eat some invertebrates too. The northern quoll is endangered for many different reason.

First of all, they are not that fit for survival – males show complete die-off after mating. This means that they live just up to one year, while females live three times longer. Then they have environmental problems, such as a devastating cane toad invasion (they only eat frogs that are being pushed out), bushfires, dingos and cats, habitat fragmentation. The latter factor created several isolated populations and scientists were not sure whether they can be cross-bred.

Each of these isolated populations is not very genetically diverse. This means that their survival chances are poor, especially having in mind what happens to males after mating. However, this new study showed that maybe there is hope – maybe the northern quoll is actually an amazingly versatile survivor.

Scientists compared northern quoll skulls from different populations 5000 kilometre apart and found many similarities, meaning that they will be able to cross-breed those populations. Scientists used geometric morphometrics technique to characterise skull shape variation in museum specimens, looking for differences and similarities. Obviously, scientists already knew that these animals belong to the same species, so why were scientists so interested in their skull shapes?

It is all about feeding. Scientists wanted to know whether northern quolls from one population would be able to feed properly in another location. Dr Vera Weisbecker, supervisor of the study, explained: “Although other parts of the animal’s body and genetic factors need to be considered, we will most likely be able to breed animals from different populations for conservation without losing adaptations to feeding”. Scientists have suspected that marsupial mammals don’t adapt their skull and skeleton very well. But the northern quoll seems to be an exception.

Scientists say that the northern quoll could be a very versatile carnivore. However, environmental problems are still here and it will be difficult to recreate a healthy population of these adorable little marsupials.


Source: University of Queensland

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