A tropical island with ideal habitat for the endangered mahogany glider is a new focus in species recovery efforts.

Researchers recently installed wildlife cameras in the forests of Hinchinbrook Island – one of Australia’s largest island national parks – as part of the first population survey since Cyclone Yasi hit the region in 2011.

The elusive gliders are known to live in patches of woodland between Tully and Ollera Creek, north of Townsville, but their numbers are unknown, with the last count at just 1500 to 2000 before the cyclone tore through their habitat.

The first population survey since Cyclone Yasi

Terrain NRM’s Andrew Dennis said field officers were working with James Cook University researchers to explore just beyond these areas – at Hinchinbrook Island, Mission Beach and Balgal Beach – where habitat modelling work had shown quality mahogany glider habitat.

Twenty cameras were installed for six weeks in three different woodland areas on Hinchinbrook Island recently, returning no mahogany glider footage but recording sugar glider action in the final hours before they were taken down.

“It’s tantalising because sugar gliders are a smaller glider which is often in the same forests as the mahogany glider,” Dr Dennis said. “We’ll be setting up cameras on the island again.”

Learning from tissue samples

James Cook University researcher Eryn Chang has also been using cameras on the mainland, along with catch and release trapping. Her team has so far taken tiny tissue samples from the ears of 22 mahogany gliders, to better understand populations and their genetic health.

“Mahogany gliders are very difficult to catch – some nights we record nothing or we see sugar or squirrel gliders and no mahoganies,’’ she said. “It’s a slow process, to build up data, but one that’s important for this species.”

Mission Beach, Balgal Beach areas part of survey

Cameras were also installed recently in an ant plant nature refuge between Mission Beach and Tully and at both Balgal Beach and Clement State Forest near Townsville.

James Cook University tropical biologist Dr Conrad Hoskin said looking for populations of mahogany gliders within the known distribution areas, and also beyond them, was the first step.

“Then we’ll be selecting some key populations to monitor through time,” he said.

“Six sites have been selected in known glider habitat where cameras will be secured in trees for six to eight weeks for systematic population monitoring, to be replicated in future years.”

Once the best methods for long-term monitoring have been identified by researchers, Terrain NRM will continue the program with community groups such as Wildlife Queensland.

Wildlife corridors, controlled burns

Terrain’s Andrew Dennis said the population survey was an important step in a larger project that included working with landholders and conservationists on planting native trees to bridge gaps in glider habitat. It also includes work with Girringun Aboriginal Rangers on controlled burns in the pockets of remaining woodland to stop rainforest from thickening and preventing gliding between trees.

It’s all part of a ‘Biodiversity Hot Spots – Tackling Woodland Threats’ project, supported by Terrain NRM through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

“Only 20 per cent of the original mahogany glider habitat remains and it’s fractured into almost 1000 individual pieces,’’ Dr Dennis said. “Protecting what remains and establishing wildlife corridors is essential for gliders to reproduce, have food sources and maintain genetic diversity.”

To learn more, visit our project page.

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