Dunnart

About the dunnart

Dunnarts are small nocturnal mouse-sized marsupials found across Australia.

Nineteen different species are found in habitats ranging from tropical savanna grasslands to desert sandhills and dense forests of Australia’s southeast and southwest.

The greatest diversity of dunnart species occurs in the dry inland areas.  One such species is the Little Long-tailed Dunnart (Sminthopsis dolichura) – recently captured by WWF’s camera traps – and is restricted to the inland areas of Southwest Australia (southern Western Australia and South Australia).

Dunnarts sleep during the day in cup-shaped nests of dried grass and leaves in fallen hollow logs or in clumps of grass, sedges and grasstrees (Xanthorrhoea spp.).

They are carnivorous and actively hunt during the night, catching and eating beetles, crickets, spiders, small reptiles, amphibians and even small mammals.

Little long-tailed dunnart (Sminthopsis dolichura). / ©: Dr Robert A Davis
Little long-tailed dunnart (Sminthopsis dolichura).
© Dr Robert A Davis

Threats to the dunnart

The main threats to the dunnart are habitat fragmentation, inappropriate fire regimes, and feral predators.

Islands of bushland in a sea of farm crops

While once common throughout Southwest Australia these diminutive marsupials are now confined to ‘islands’ of remnant vegetation, the result of large-scale clearing for agriculture.

The majority of its remaining habitat is privately-owned bush remnants.

Dunnarts are known to be able to recolonise burnt areas readily as they are adapted to mid-successional complexes of vegetation. However, a single fire can potentially wipe out an entire population.

As these remnants have become increasingly isolated from one another, lack of connective bush corridors can mean that re-colonisation is less likely to occur.

Feral animals

Other major threats to the little long-tailed dunnart include feral foxes and feral cats, which are aided in their search for prey by the ever-shrinking bush remnants across their ranges.

Feral foxes and cats have played a major role in the decline and extinction of Australian fauna since European settlement.

Studies have shown that when living alongside one another, foxes tend to be primary predators with cats playing second fiddle. In the absence of foxes, cats have been found to fill the fox’s role and so increase their impact on fauna.

Together, they are ‘ecological vacuum-cleaners’ of Australia’s bushland, deserts, coasts and wetlands and have had tremendous impact on its unique and diverse fauna.

Feral Foxes

The European red fox (Vulpes vulpes) was introduced into Australia in the mid 1800s in Southeast Australia for the sport of fox hunting and has since spread over much of Australia. Only tropical northern Australia remains fox-free. Even Tasmania has seen deliberate, illegal fox introductions in recent years.

The fox is an opportunistic predator and scavenger and can eat fruit and berries when prey is scarce. It has played a major role in the decline of many ground nesting birds, reptiles, amphibians and small to mid-sized mammals, such as dunnarts, bandicoots and even rock wallabies.

Feral Cats

Domestic cats (Felis catus) are believed to have been first introduced into Australia in the 1700s. They were brought in as companion animals by European settlers and turned loose across rural areas in the hope that they would reduce numbers of introduced rodents.

Feral cats are now well established over the entire mainland of Australia (including the north where foxes are absent) and on many coastal islands off mainland Australia.

Being agile climbers, good fishers and able to survive long periods in desert regions without drinking, cats are extremely adaptable and highly efficient hunters. They are responsible for the extinctions of some island fauna and have been linked to the decline of many insects, frogs, reptiles, birds and small mammals.

As cats generally have strong hunting instincts, domestic and feral cats impact heavily and directly on native fauna.

Domestic cats can be found roaming freely around almost all Australian towns and cities, where they hunt such prey as frogs, fish, birds, mammals, skinks, geckoes and insects.

While feral cats may at times hunt larger prey than their pet cousins, larger species of native animals can be particularly vulnerable to domestic cat predation when young and small. Domestic cats, for example, are known to hunt and kill the young of bandicoots, possums and monitor lizards (goannas).

Additionally, feral cat populations are continually increasing from domestic cat populations. Cats breed from an early age and in good conditions, feral cats can have two litters of 3-7 kittens a year.

Camera trap footage

Watch video footage of a little long-tailed dunnart that was captured by camera trap in Southwest Australia.
Many small Australian native animals are confined to islands of native bushland amongst a sea of ... / ©: Chris Curnow / WWF
In Southwest Australia many small native animals are confined to islands of native bushland amongst a sea of agricultural cropland.
© Chris Curnow / WWF
Feral cats pose a major threat to small fauna in Australia, such as the Little Long-tailed Dunnart. / ©: Mike Griffiths / WWF
Feral cats pose a major threat to small fauna in Australia, such as the Little Long-tailed Dunnart.
© Mike Griffiths / WWF
The feral fox was introduced into Australia in the 1800s for sport hunting. Since then it has ... / ©: Mike Griffiths / WWF
The European fox was introduced into Australia in the 1800s for sport hunting. Since then it has played a major role in the destruction of native wildlife.
© Mike Griffiths / WWF

WWF's work to protect dunnarts

In engaging private land managers to manage for conservation WWF-Australia’s staff utilise a common interest in birds, reptiles, mammals and the unique flora to ‘get a foot in the door’ and to commence the long-term discussion with farmers regarding the stewardship that they’d like to be actively involved in.

Winning the hearts and minds of land managers is a major goal of WWF’s programs.

Those flora and fauna species that can capture the imagination of land managers serve as indicators of the biodiversity values of these precious bushland’ islands’.

WWF continues to be encouraged by the willingness that landholders show to protect and manage their private remnants and their delight when ‘new’ flora and fauna is found – a common occurrence in the Southwest Australia Ecoregion.

While some animal species such as the tiny, secretive dunnarts often elude even the keenest eyes, their secrets are now being given up by the use of camera-traps in the hands of WWF’s ever-enthusiastic field staff.

[Authors: Chris Curnow / Phil Lewis / Mike Griffiths / Helena Mills]

WWF-Australia works closely with landowners like Ken Liebeck to help maintain native biodiversity ... / ©: Chris Curnow / WWF
WWF-Australia works closely with landowners like Ken Liebeck to help maintain native biodiversity on farms across the Southwest Australian ecoregion.
© Chris Curnow / WWF

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