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Feral Cats Threaten Australia’s Native Animals

17 May 2016

AUSTRALIA - It’s been known for some time that feral cats are a serious threat to small to medium-sized native mammals, but a ground-breaking study into their behaviour has revealed how feral cats are killing more efficiently than thought.

This has significant implications for the management of feral cats.  

Dr John Kanowski, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, will present the results of the research at the Australian Veterinary Association Annual Conference this month.

“The purpose of the study was to examine the hunting behaviours and distances travelled by feral cats and their impact on small mammals,” he said.

The study involved fitting GPS collars to 66 cats in wildlife sanctuaries in the Kimberley, Western Australia and Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, to track their movements.

“In both regions, cats were observed to travel long distances outside their regular home ranges, particularly to areas burnt by intense fires, which had removed almost all ground cover.

“We assumed they travelled to these areas because the exposed prey made them easier to hunt.”

To test this idea, the team set-up miniature video cameras on cat collars, a first for feral cats in Australia, to watch them in action.

“The footage showed us where cats went and how they hunted. We also recorded footage of cats killing reptiles, birds and frogs.

“On average, each cat hunted 20 times a day with a 30 per cent success rate. So on average, each cat killed seven animals a day, but ate only two-thirds of the animals they killed. This means that analyses of cat stomach contents will underestimate their impact. Data suggests that feral cats are probably killing around three million native animals a year in the Mornington-Marion Downs (Kimberley) area alone,” he said.

According to Dr Kanowski, a key finding was that the habitat had an overwhelming impact on hunting success.

“In open areas, particularly where there had been fires, 80 per cent of hunts resulted in a kill but when cats attempted to hunt among dense grass or rocky country, only 20 per cent of hunts resulted in a kill.

“The fact that predation success by feral cats is highly responsive to ground cover is an important breakthrough. The result implies that impacts of feral cats can be reduced through effective fire management and feral herbivore control, although it is likely that direct control measures will also be required,” he said.

“Feral cats are difficult to control at a landscape-scale and currently there’s no silver bullet for saving mammals from feral cats. More research is needed to identify broad-scale solutions. Until then we need to implement strategies likely to deliver the best returns – such as establishing more feral predator-free areas.”

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