There’s a place in northwest outback Queensland, on the traditional homelands of the Ngawun/Mbara and Yirendali peoples — a wide-open land of long dry seasons, summer thunderstorms and vast, treeless plains.
This landscape is home to an elusive carnivore you’ve possibly never heard of.
They also don’t mind the smell of bacon and peanut butter, according to zoologist and Emeritus Professor Patricia Woolley, who rediscovered the animal in 1992 after it was thought to be extinct.
Weighing up to 70 grams, the Julia Creek dunnart is the largest of the 19 dunnart species native to Australia and Papua New Guinea.
The tiny, mouse-sized animal lives in the Mitchell Grass Downs region of northwest Queensland and is a member of the Dasyuridae family of marsupials — of which Patricia is an expert.
In fact, Professor Woolley pioneered dasyurid science. In the course of her career, she discovered the male antechinus’ famously frantic breeding habits, studied fat-tailed dunnarts at Uluru, dibblers from Western Australia, and developed Australia’s first marsupial zoology course.
In one of her most notable lines of research, Patricia studied the relationships among the genus Sminthopsis, otherwise known as dunnarts. To do this, she had to obtain males from all 19 species.
At the time, the Julia Creek dunnart was known only from four specimens collected between 1911 and 1972. Was it extinct, as many people believed it to be? Or was this dunnart just particularly good at hiding?
“The only thing I could do is go out and try and find them,” Patricia said.
Unlike today, there was no such thing as a citizen science app to help Patricia crowdsource animal sightings and information from the public. Instead, she sent leaflets to around 300 residents in the Julia Creek area.
Eventually, a property owner contacted Patricia about a dead hollow tree by the Saxby River, containing owl pellets with dunnart bones. Four dunnarts were found nearby — two were dead when they were discovered, one was brought in by a cat, and the fourth died after being dug up during repairs to flood-damaged roads.
Buoyed by these results, Patricia set out to find living Julia Creek dunnarts.
Over six months, Patricia set up 4,250 trap nights across seven locations.
Using bacon and peanut butter as bait, she caught seven Julia Creek dunnarts. The highest rate of detection at any location was 0.8% — or one trapped dunnart for every 250 trap nights.
The animals formed the basis of a captive breeding program that allowed Patricia to study them more closely.
The Julia Creek dunnart is listed as endangered in Queensland and vulnerable nationally — and its prospects for survival aren’t promising.
Animals like the dunnart, which are in the critical weight range (35 g to 5,500g) and live in arid habitats, have the worst rate of extinction in Australia.
Drawing on Woolley’s research, the federal government developed a threatened species recovery plan for the Julia Creek dunnart in 2009. In theory, the plan means state and federal governments should be taking all necessary action to stop the extinction or decline of the dunnart — and support its recovery.
In practice, it’s been a very different story.
In 2021, the federal government approved a mine that would wipe out almost 7,500 hectares of potential habitat for the Julia Creek dunnart.
Proposed by minerals company Multicom Resources, the mine will be used to extract vanadium (a rare mineral used in steel manufacturing, nuclear reactors and big batteries) from habitat that Woolley believes is sure to be home to dunnarts.
The strip-mining will remove all vegetation and topsoil to an average depth of 20 metres. If it goes ahead, the mining will likely catch this tiny nocturnal marsupial in its sleep, killing many dunnarts outright.
"Animals like the dunnart... have the worst rate of extinction in Australia."
When Multicom applied for permission for the mine from the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE), the company published details of its efforts to find the Julia Creek dunnart onsite. It found none.
DAWE then reached out to an expert to check the survey was up to scratch. It wasn't, and Patricia didn’t beat around the bush.
“The trapping effort appears to have been minimal — seems they put it in the ‘too hard’ basket,” she wrote in correspondence with the Department in February 2020.
“So far as I could see they did only 800 trap nights in the month of March and the trapping area was small,” she said.
“The mine site is well within the range of the species and with appropriate methods I feel sure that [Julia Creek dunnarts] would be found.”
ACF’s investigations team obtained a copy of this email through Freedom of Information law to confirm the advice the government has received — and apparently ignored. The mine was approved in March 2021.
Multicom has agreed to continue monitoring for the species at the mine site and plans to claim the research project as an “environmental offset” to compensate for its damage.
Research into the dunnarts and their habitat is work the federal government could have funded any time over the past 12 years, in line with the recovery plan, but hasn’t. Ultimately, neither party has met its obligations to protect the endangered animal.
Woolley says this is incredibly frustrating for the scientists involved, but not at all uncommon.
“You spend a lot of time developing these plans and then there's no money to go ahead with them.” Nor are there any mechanisms to enforce them.
"...neither party has met its obligations to protect the endangered animal."
If the dunnart is proven “extirpated” (locally extinct), Multicom says further conservation measures (such as permanently protecting nearby habitat, which would normally be required when a company plans to destroy habitat) would be “of little value”.
Instead, it says it will fund a captive breeding and release program. But “a captive breeding program is not the answer to the problem,”
Patricia says, “You need to protect the environment.”
And we agree.
Story originally published in ACF's habitat magazine, October 2021.
Julia Creek dunnart photos: Hans and Judy Beste/Lochman Transparencies; Julia Creek: Genevieve Vallee/Alamy Stock Photo; Barn owl: Henri Faure/Shutterstock.com; Strip-mine: Jason Benz Bennee/Shutterstock.com