Devil declines and catastrophic cascades: is mesopredator release of feral cats inhibiting recovery of the eastern quoll?
Fancourt, BA and Hawkins, CE and Cameron, EZ and Jones, ME and Nicol, SC, Devil declines and catastrophic cascades: is mesopredator release of feral cats inhibiting recovery of the eastern quoll?, PLoS ONE, 10, (3) Article e0119303. ISSN 1932-6203 (2015) [Refereed Article]
The eastern quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus) is a medium-sized Australian marsupial carnivore that has recently undergone a rapid and severe population decline over the 10 years to 2009, with no sign of recovery. This decline has been linked to a period of unfavourable weather, but subsequent improved weather conditions have not been matched by quoll recovery. A recent study suggested another mechanism: that declines in Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) populations, due to the spread of the fatal Devil Facial Tumour Disease, have released feral cats (Felis catus) from competitive suppression, with eastern quoll declines linked to a subsequent increase in cat sightings. Yet current evidence of intraguild suppression among devils, cats and quolls is scant and equivocal. We therefore assessed the influences of top-down effects on abundance and activity patterns among devils, feral cats and eastern quolls. Between 2011 and 2013, we monitored four carnivore populations using longitudinal trapping and camera surveys, and performed camera surveys at 12 additional sites throughout the eastern quoll’s range. We did not find evidence of a negative relationship between devil and cat abundance, nor of higher cat abundance in areas where devil populations had declined the longest. Cats did not appear to avoid devils spatially; however, there was evidence of temporal separation of cat and devil activity, with reduced separation and increasing nocturnal activity observed in areas where devils had declined the longest. Cats and quolls used the same areas, and there was no evidence that cat and quoll abundances were negatively related. Temporal overlap in observed cat and quoll activity was higher in summer than in winter, but this seasonal difference was unrelated to devil declines. We suggest that cats did not cause the recent quoll decline, but that predation of juvenile quolls by cats could be inhibiting low density quoll populations from recovering their former abundance through a ‘predator pit’ effect following weather-induced decline. Predation intensity could increase further should cats become increasingly nocturnal in response to devil declines.