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Critically endangered tiny marsupial that survived wildfires now facing extinction threat from feral cats

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The Kangaroo Island dunnart, a small mouse-sized marsupial found only on an Island off South Australia, is on the brink of extinction due to predation by feral cats.

Researchers, including those from the University of Adelaide in Australia, estimated that there are only around 500 Kangaroo Island dunnarts (Sminthopsis aitkeni) left on Kangaroo Island located off the South Australia coast.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports on Thursday, called for an urgent need to protect these vulnerable species from feral cat predation, particularly following natural disasters such as bushfires.

The island was particularly hit by the 2019-20 bushfires which burnt 98 per cent of the dunnart’s habitat.

Feral cat predation has been known to pose a severe risk to many native Australian species, but it has not yet been confirmed until now whether these cats are a threat to Kangaroo Island dunnarts.

In the study, scientists investigated the impact of feral cat predation on Kangaroo Island dunnarts by assessing the stomach contents and digestive tracts of 86 feral cats that were captured between February and August 2020 in specially designated conservation areas on the island.

The cats were captured as part of the national feral cat control programme, and were euthanised in accordance with South Australia animal welfare laws, researchers say.

They identified the remains of eight individual Kangaroo Island dunnarts in the digestive systems of seven different cats – about 8 per cent of the sampled cats.

The findings are the first confirmation that feral cats do prey on Kangaroo Island dunnarts, suggesting the felines are efficient hunters of this tiny marsupial species, given their numbers are already small following the bushfires.

Researchers said the combined pressures of a small, isolated population, natural disasters like bushfires, and predation from introduced species like feral cats could lead to the extinction of this vulnerable species.

They called for the need to maintain control over feral cat populations in areas home to threatened species.

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