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Island sanctuary brings hope to dwindling quokka population

Date: 03-Aug-17
Author: Laura Chalk

The quokka, or setonix brachyurus, is a little macropod with a big smile

The quokka, or setonix brachyurus, is a little macropod with a big smile

Some animals display facial expressions reflecting their mood far more than others. Horses and dogs, for example, have an array of expressions to demonstrate their emotions.  Quokkas seem to be another animal with the ability to do this. And their mood? Permanently set on very happy.

The ‘world’s happiest animal’ has every reason to be smiling, as their numbers – listed as vulnerable – are rapidly increasing due to some unlikely causes: a golf course, smartphones, and our obsession with selfies and social media.

The quokka is an Australian marsupial, part of the wallaby family, found only in a small, south-western pocket of the country. On the mainland, the creature has to contend with invasive predators and habitat loss. However, there’s a sanctuary where they are thriving: Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth. 

In 2012, a man visiting the island took a selfie with a quokka, whose unusual mouth made it appear to be smiling. The photo quickly went viral.

Fast forward to 2017 and the island is being inundated with tourists seeking a selfie snap with the teddy bear-sized creature. As visitation has increased, so too has the quokka population. 

The island’s quokkas first encountered people back in 1658, when Dutch explorers mistook them for giant rats (‘rottnest’ is Dutch for ‘rat’s nest’). The animals now run rampant through the settlement areas of the island, behaving like rats, even evolving to accommodate the influx of humans - their phones and their food.

“They’re meant to be nocturnal, but they’ve altered their activity patterns so that they’re awake during the day to be around tourists and scavenge food from them,” says wildlife biologist Veronica Philips.

Philips conducted a recent study affirming the success of these adaptation techniques. The findings show that quokka populations in highly developed parts of the island are in significantly better condition than those from less disrupted habitats. Quokka offspring are also more likely to survive in the developed areas.

There are consequences that have arisen from this close human-quokka living arrangement, however. And as a recent National Geographic article explains, it’s imperative to strike a balance.

Signs on the island warn of heavy fines if tourists are caught feeding the animals. Selfie sticks are encouraged so happy-snappers don’t get too close. More visitors to Rottnest means more cars and quokka road casualties. About 13 to 20 percent of the island’s quokkas live around the golf club, so there’s the fear that if too many become concentrated in one area, they may compete for food and any disease would spread rapidly 

According to the CSIRO, the quokka has lost 50 percent of its habitat on the mainland, due to urban and agricultural expansion and logging. Here, the quokkas are also vulnerable to feral cats, pigs and foxes (whereas feral cats have been wiped out on the island). Conservationists warn that the quokka is suffering and many still consider them vulnerable to extinction. Rottnest could indeed prove vital for the quokkas’ survival.

“I’m not too worried about tourism,” Phillips says. “I am very worried about climate change.”

Quokkas depend on lush vegetation for food and hideouts from predators. Karlene Bain, a researcher with the University of Western Australia, has found that quokkas are dependent upon the wettest areas of their habitat range. If rainfall decreases in south-west Australia, as climate scientists expect, that wetland and waterside vegetation will vanish.

The same technology that has driven quokka numbers up could play a part in ensuring the animal’s survival. With quokka videos surpassing a million views on YouTube, their existence, tucked away near the bottom of the globe, is becoming well-known, and their cute smiles well-loved. The hope is that this will promote their protection and cause humans – who have always impacted the quokkas lives both positively and negatively – to consider their actions to reduce climate change, so help to ensure these marsupials will always have something to smile about. 

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Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.  


Laura                                             Chalk
Author: Laura Chalk

Laura joined Planet Ark in 2016. She has a wealth of knowledge and experience having travelled the world and a background in teaching English as a second language among other things.

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