Rangelands NRM Blog, News & Resources

Kuna collecting builds knowledge of desert fauna

Collecting the ‘kuna’ of introduced predators such as cats, dogs and foxes in desert country is helping traditional owners determine their prey and has also revealed the presence of a suite of small species that still exist in the western desert.

Kuna, the Martu name for scats or faeces, was collected on Martu country in 2012 during the fauna track-based monitoring component of the Rangelands NRM-funded Desert Rangelands project.

Alison McGilvray, Desert Rangelands Conservation Officer from the Department of Environment and Conservation said predation by fox and cat is a key factor in the decline of small-medium sized mammals since European settlement.

“The impact of the dingo is less well understood, and there is some evidence that dingoes may suppress populations of foxes, but this is the subject of much scientific debate,” she said.

“A pile of kuna can reveal a lot about the native fauna that is present in the region, even if they are not detected by other means,” Ms McGilvray said.

Cat and dingo/wild dog kuna were most commonly collected, with few fox kuna found, which matches the lack of foxes as evident in the track-based monitoring plots.

Fresh signs –  such as tracks, diggings, dens and kuna, no more than 1-2 days old – of cat, dingo/wild dog and fox were found in 29 per cent, 13 per cent and 7 per cent respectively of fauna plots on Birriliburu, Martu, Ngururrpa, Pilki, Spinifex and Yilka country in 2012.

Once collected, the kuna is posted to Victoria for analysis. Barbara Triggs, author of Tracks, scats and other traces: a field guide to Australian Mammals, undertakes this work by placing the kuna inside pantyhose. It is soaked, washed and air-dried and the remains are examined under microscope.

“Mammal hair and bones are keyed out to identify species,” Ms McGilvray said. “Other material like feathers, reptile skin, insects and plant material are also commonly found in the kuna, but can’t be identified to species level due to the nature of the material.”

Kilu (spinifex hopping mouse) was the most common prey item of cats; kirti-kirti (euro) was the most common prey item of dingoes, and foxes fed equally on five different species.

Ms McGilvray said some animals appeared in the kuna which couldn’t be detected in the track-based plots, due to their light weight, like the little red kaluta, sandy inland mouse and desert mouse.

“Other species found in previous years include the long-tailed planigale, Australia’s smallest marsupial which weighs only about 4g, and the brush-tailed possum, which is likely to be very rare in the deserts,” she said.

In previous years, camel sign was prevalent in dingo scats, where dingoes had been feeding on camel carcasses.  No sign of camel was found in any scats collected in 2012.  This is likely to be a factor of recent high rainfall years which have rejuvenated widespread water sources and dispersed camels, and an indication of the success of the control program run through the Australian Feral Camel Management Project.

For more information, contact Alison McGilvray at DEC.

Dingo Kuna (©Zan King)
Sandy Inland Mouse (©Steve Wright)

[Download] a copy of the Kuna Poster (and graphs)