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In June 2008 I had the privilege of examining the last mainland Eastern quoll. Follow the link to see the photo (and specific terms regarding the usage of this photo - it may not be reproduced).
Eastern quolls at Taronga Zoo
Is the quoll shown at right the last mainland Eastern quoll, while it was alive?
This fascinating photo (click to enlarge) comes to me from well-known environmental scientist and Tasmanian tiger enthusiast, Gary Opit of northern New South Wales. It was published in Taronga Zoo's guide book of the early 1960s.
As described on my mainland Eastern quoll project page, the last confirmed Eastern quoll on the mainland was a road-killed specimen from Vaucluse, Sydney, in January 1963. This is not the same animal as shown here. However Gary brings to me an incredibly detailed account of the last Eastern quolls on the mainland - and this zoo specimen may well be the final example of the species, contrary to the accepted 1963 date.
Mr Venour Nathan
In the early 1960s Gary was a high school student at Vaucluse. He responded to a notice regarding a nature study walk to be led by local naturalist, Mr Venour Nathan. The destination was Nielsen Park, Vaucluse. Reaching the sandstone cliffs near Vaucluse house, Mr Nathan remarked that those were the dens of the Eastern quolls - or native cats as they were called.
It passed that Mr Nathan and Mr Opit became firm friends, sharing a love of natural and human history and Mr Nathan shared a number of native cat stories with Gary.
According to Gary, Mr Nathan "fed [the quolls] nightly and had lived with them since he was a boy [some fifty years earlier]. In the 1960s they lived in the ceiling and under the house and a cat chased one of them into the storage area under the house and the quoll sought refuge under the floor boards then grabbed the cat by the throat and killed it.
"Two young ones came into his kitchen and then when they saw him they rushed around trying to escape and not finding the half open door, tried to dig their way through the tiled floor. He opened the door and they eventually found their way out."
"Another friend, Stan Scanlon, observed them feeding at night along the harbour shore and on the mud flats at low tide. The milkman used to see them at night crossing the road."
Officially the last mainland Eastern quoll
It turns out that Mr Nathan was in fact the person who discovered the roadkilled female Eastern quoll outside his home in Vaucluse in January 1963. He took it to the Australian Museum and it turned out to be the last specimen recorded, although as Mr Opit notes - "Of course we had no idea that the species was on the edge of extinction; books stated that they were common ... we thought that they must still be abundant in the countryside beyond the city."
Persisting into the 1970s
Despite Mr Nathan's specimen being the last recorded, he reported to Mr Opit that a family of Eastern quolls "continued into the early 1970s on a private property just south of Nielsen Park beside the harbour." The lady who owned the property used to feed them in her garden.
Taronga Zoo's exhibit
Mr Opit was a regular visitor to Taronga Zoo during his youth. His collection of zoo guide books dates back to the 1950s with the cover on one edition showing animals leaving Noah's Ark and walking into the zoo. The photo of the Eastern quoll shown here comes from "the last of the old style books from the early 1960s when Hallstrom was the director ... This was the only time Taronga included a quoll photo in its guide books. In the map at the front of the book it shows the enclosure with the name 'tiger cats'. The next guide with a white greater glider on the cover was published when Strahan took over and the fauna list at the back, listing all the species kept, with location, includes both quoll species located at the front entrance, but no photos of these animals. The guide book after that in the 1970s with a cuscus on the cover does not mention quolls as exhibited, however they did exhibit both Eastern quolls from Tasmania and Western quolls from Western Australia."
Taronga's post-extinction Eastern quolls
Gary notes that "for years after [Mr Nathan discovered the 1963 roadkilled quoll], they still had 2 or 3 at Taronga Zoo in an enclosure directly opposite the main entrance ... I have an 8mm video of the enclosure and these almost certainly were the last known survivors. Because they never had quolls before this time ([and] I visited the zoo many times every year and knew every animal there), I was particularly excited at the display of spotted-tailed and Eastern quolls."
"I asked the keeper where the Eastern quolls came from and he told me Vaucluse and Lane Cove and [that they] were animals that had been collected from people's houses who had contacted the zoo to remove them."
"Taronga Zoo built 2 or 3 of these open rectangular pits, about 3 metres wide and 7 metres long for tiger cats (spotted-tailed quolls) and native cats (Eastern quolls) in the early 1960s; built of concrete but coloured and shaped to look quite natural with lawn, plants and logs ... two dens at the end and two concrete logs running to the lawn and pool from the dens two metres above the ground."
Gary's own sighting
Although Gary "unfortunately ... did not see them at Vaucluse", he did see one at Rose Bay in about 1960 on the harbour foreshore.
My observations on these stories
There are a number of fascinating observations that can be made on the behaviour of Eastern quolls based on these stories that Gary has kindly passed on. Perhaps the most immediately striking is the story of the Eastern quoll that ambushed - and then successfully killed - a house cat. No doubt cats have played a significant role in the demise of Eastern quolls on the mainland, although given that feral cats and Eastern quolls survive side-by-side in Tasmania it should come as no surprise that the Eastern quoll can defend itself against this competitor.
The Eastern quoll shown here is one of the black forms imported to the mainland from Tasmania in about 2006. It is part of the breeding program at Lithgow and in comparison to the keeper's hand this photo gives an indication of the size of an adult Eastern quoll.
What strikes me next is the number of times these animals were observed on the harbour foreshore; i.e. along the mud flats. I am collating a number of pre and post-extinction sightings data in preparation for a report and it seems that the majority of sightings have always occurred near waterways. This may be more a reflection of the distribution of people making the observations, but given their diet of rodents and insects, it should be unsurprising that they come to mud flats to feed. In addition to these two staples, presumably crabs and carrion may form part of their natural diet in this habitat also.
Finally, I note Mr Nathan's remark that the sandstone caves formed the dens of the Nielsen Park colony. This observation gives me encouragement, for the camera I recently deployed on the basis of an Eastern quoll sighting made in 2006 is aimed directly at a sandstone outcrop which has a small shelter underneath. That said, it is further from the nearest watercourse than I would have liked.
Acknowledgement and Reference
I would like to thank Mr Opit for sharing these insights into mainland Australia's last Eastern quolls, and forwarding the photo which is found in one of the Taronga Zoo guide editions published in the 1960s. In my quotations above I have paraphrased Mr Opit very slightly. Mr Opit's information comes to me via personal communication on a number of dates through April 2008.
Over to you
If any reader has photographs of Eastern (or spotted-tailed) quolls in Taronga Zoo - or any further information about quolls in the wild on the mainland at any time at all, please do contact the author.