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Julia Creek dunnart

Copyright: Greg Mifsud

Copyright: Greg Mifsud

Common name: Julia Creek dunnart

Scientific name: Sminthopsis douglasi (sminthopsis = mouse-like; douglasi = named after A.M. Douglas, Western Australian naturalist and collector for the Western Australia Museum)

Family: Dasyuridae

Conservation status: This species is listed as Endangered in Queensland (Nature Conservation Act 1992) and Vulnerable nationally (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999). It is ranked as a critical priority under the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection Back on Track species prioritisation framework.

Description

The Julia Creek dunnart is a small, carnivorous marsupial and the largest of the 19 species of the dunnarts found in Australia. They have a body length of 13-13.5 cm, a tail length of 12-13 cm, and weight ranges of 40-60 g for females and 50-70 g for males. They are sandy brown in colour, speckled with grey above and buffy white below. Its face has rufous hair on the cheeks and at the base of the ears and dark hairs towards the tip of its long tapering tail. A darker face stripe runs from behind the nose to the top of the head and there is also a fine ring of darker hair around the eyes. It has large eyes, narrow feet and a pointed snout.

It can also store energy in its tail as fat, and individuals will have a swollen base to their tail when food is abundant.

Habitat and distribution

Cracking clay soils  Photo: EHP

Cracking clay soils Photo: EHP

The predator fence around Julia Creek aerodrome  Photo: EHP

The predator fence around Julia Creek aerodrome Photo: EHP

The Julia Creek dunnart lives on the Mitchell Grass Downs and some areas of the Desert Uplands in north-western Queensland. It shelters in the cracking clay soils during the dry season or among the low grass and shrubs following summer rain. Habitat selection appears to be based on the density of holes and cracks in the soil, rather than vegetation cover which is dependent on season and unpredictable rainfall events and not a reliable source of shelter. In the absence of ground cover individuals may be more susceptible to predation when alternative refuge sites (e.g. soil cracks) are unavailable.

Before 1990, this species was only known from four specimens held in the Queensland and Australian museums and was believed to be extinct. In 1990 a new survey program began with the help of local landowners and revealed a number of new specimens from owl pellets (i.e. the indigestible remains of an owl's prey that are disgorged as pellets) and domestic cat kills. In 1991 and 1992 the first live specimens were caught (including one rescued from a cat) which extended the species geographic range considerably within both the Mitchell Grass Downs and Desert Uplands Bioregions. The number of known localities increased from three to 11 using indirect survey methods.

Julia Creek dunnarts have been found in Bladensburg National Park and Moorrinya National Park. These are the only protected areas on which they are known to occur.

One live S. douglasi specimen was discovered in Mitchell Grass habitat adjacent to the Julia Creek aerodrome. As the 250 ha area of Mitchell grassland surrounding the aerodrome was relatively undisturbed, McKinlay Shire Council worked with the Department of Environment and Science to protect and manage this habitat for the Julia Creek dunnart. To assist with its protection, a vermin proof fence encompassing the entire aerodrome was installed in January 2008.

Life history and behaviour

The Julia Creek dunnart is nocturnal, emerging from its shelter in the cracked soil to feed on arthropods such as crickets, cockroaches, silverfish and slaters, as well as spiders and small vertebrates e.g. skinks and planigales.

The species appears to be highly mobile occupying home ranges that vary from 0.25 ha to 7.12 ha in size.

From studies of captive individuals it appears that the Julia Creek dunnart may be polyoestrous (i.e. undergoes oestrus more than once each year). Females are able to breed from between 17 and 27 weeks of age and males between 28 and 31 weeks. This later maturity in males may be a way of limiting inbreeding within small populations. Females can have up to eight young after a gestation period of only 13 days. This life history trait is typical of small species inhabiting semi-arid and arid environments where food supply is unpredictable. Sminthopsis species are considered a ‘boom or bust’ species, being subjected to periodical fluctuations in population associated with seasonal changes. Generally they are short lived, with a lifespan of two to three years.

Threatening processes

Threats to the Julia Creek dunnart include predation by feral animals (such as cats and foxes), inappropriate grazing regimes that can destroy habitat, and the invasive weeds such as prickly acacia that degrades their habitat. Wildfires and extreme climatic events may also impact the species.

Feral cats are significant predators of Julia Creek dunnarts and predation can be high within a local area. Examination of the stomach contents of feral cats and red foxes collected by shooting and trapping on Toorak Research Station revealed that foxes also prey on Julia Creek dunnarts.Red foxes are considered less of a threat, but are common throughout the species' range.

Invasive weeds such as prickly acacia (Acacia nilotica), mesquite (Prosopis spp.) and parkinsonia (Parkinsoniaaculeata) are a major threat to the biodiversity in the Mitchell Grass Downs. Prickly acacia shades out understorey plants, and its extensive root system inhibits the cracking of clay soils (an important component of dunnart habitat).

An experimental burn at Bladensburg National Park in 2001 found that Julia Creek dunnarts can survive the direct effects of fire if there is suitable habitat (i.e. soil cracks and ground cover) to provide protection from predators. The impact of fire on the species depends upon the timing and severity of the burn and the amount of remaining ground cover.

Unpredictable climatic events such as heavy, prolonged rainfall which can cause severe flooding could have the potential to cause high mortality of juvenile Julia Creek dunnarts if the young are not sufficiently mobile to escape rising floodwaters. Similarly, females carrying pouch young may be at risk from drowning because of the increased weight being carried, preventing them from swimming or climbing onto vegetation.

Recovery actions

A Julia Creek dunnart at the Julia Creek aerodrome

A Julia Creek dunnart at the Julia Creek aerodrome

The recovery plan for the Julia Creek dunnart suggests that maintaining areas which support suitable habitat has the greatest potential for conserving wild populations.

  • Appropriate management of suitable habitat, including predator control, will assist in retaining current populations.
  • Private landholders are being encouraged to manage their properties in ways that contribute to the conservation of this species.
  • Between 2007 and December 2008, a total of 42 captive-bred dunnarts were released into the Julia Creek aerodrome sanctuary along with the installation of predator proof fencing.

Related information

Department of the Environment 2017. Sminthopsis douglasi - Julia Creek Dunnart in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. 

National recovery plan for the Julia Creek dunnart (Sminthopsis douglasi) 2009. Report to the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Canberra.

Woinarski J, Burbidge A and Harrison P 2014. The Action Plan for Australian Mammals 2012. CSIRO Publishing, Victoria, Australia.

Woolley PA 2008. Julia Creek Dunnart 136-7 in S. Van Dyck and R. Strahan (eds). The Mammals of Australia. 3rd edition New Holland Publishers, Australia.

Last updated
23 January 2018